Category Archives: Web Treasure Hunt

Interesting times (2)

December 2016 version of Sgt Pepper cover, by Chris Barker There’s an ancient Chinese curse or proverb: “May you live in interesting times…”

Well, there isn’t actually (it dates all the way back to the politician Austen Chamberlain in 1936) but I think we can all agree that 2016 has been… interesting!
Most of us would probably wish that 2017 is a little less so.

While Westminster Libraries can’t promise world peace or political stability, we can promise you some interesting anniversaries and the resources for interested people to carry out further research.

January

The year kicks off in January with the 75th anniversary of Desert Island Discs, which was first broadcast on 29 January 1942. It continues to this day with guests (rather tweely known as ‘castaways’) being asked to discuss the eight pieces of music they would take to a desert island. Later on, guests were allowed to choose a book and a luxury too. The first castaway was the ‘comedian, lightning club manipulator, violinist and comedy trick cyclist’, Vic Oliver. Oliver was not only a major star on the radio but also the son-in-law of Winston Churchill (something Churchill wasn’t too thrilled about, though Oliver never traded on the relationship). Though this episode doesn’t survive in the BBC archives, many hundreds of others do and  are available to listen online or download as podcasts. The earliest surviving episode has the actress Margaret Lockwood as a guest and other castaways include seven prime ministers, dozens of Oscar winners, a bunch of Olympic medallists, a few Royals and several criminals.

February

19 February brings the 300th anniversary of the birth of the actor, playwright and theatre manager David Garrick. Though he was a native of Lichfield (and former pupil of another Lichfield resident-turned-London-devotee, Samuel Johnson) by the age of 23, Garrick was acclaimed as the greatest actor on the English stage. He was a noted playwright but most famous for his Shakespearean roles – though he was not averse to ‘improving’ on the text – his adaptations included a Hamlet without the funeral of Ophelia and the need for the gravediggers, a ‘King Lear’ without the Fool and a Cordelia who lives on, an interpolated dying speech for Macbeth and a scene between the two lovers in the tomb before they die in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Be honest – who wouldn’t want to see those? He ran the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for nearly 30 years and he is now commemorated by a theatre and a pub (with Charing Cross Library neatly sandwiched in between).

March

1717 wasn’t just a significant year in the history of ‘legitimate’ theatre. 2 March that year saw the first performance (at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane)  of The Loves of Mars and Venus by John Weaver, generally regarded as the  first ballet performed in Britain. While there had been English masques and French ballets before this, Weaver was the first person to tell a story through the medium of dance without the need for songs or dialogue. Weaver was the son of the dancing master at Shrewsbury School (public school curricula must have been rather different in the 1600s).

Mrs Hester BoothIn 1703 he had staged (at Drury Lane) a performance called The Tavern Bilkers, usually regarded as the first English pantomime (he described it as “the first entertainment that appeared on the English Stage, where the Representation and Story was carried on by Dancing Action and Motion only”) but it was The Loves of Mars and Venus (the choreography of which survives) which established Weaver as the major figure in English dance until the twentieth century. Venus was played by Hester Santlow (shown dressed as a harlequin), one of the leading ballerinas of the day, who created many roles for Weaver.

April

Readers of a certain age will remember adverts for Memorex tapes (other brands are available) in which a singer shattered a glass with a high note and the trick was repeated when the tape was played back. Depending on exactly how certain your age is, you may have identified the singer as the great Ella Fitzgerald whose centenary is commemorated on 25 April 2017.

Growing up in a poor district of New York and orphaned in her early teens, Ella spent time in a reformatory but soon escaped and began to enter show business via talent competitions and amateur nights, becoming an established band singer. At the age of 21 she recorded a version of the children’s nursery rhyme A Tisket A Tasket which went on to sell over a million copies. She went on to become one of the greatest of all jazz singers, developing her own idiosyncratic style of ‘scat singing’. All through her career she fought prejudice, refusing to accept any discrimination in hotels and concert venues even when such treatment was  standard in the Southern USA.

You can listen to some of her greatest recordings via the Naxos Music Library and learn more about her career in Oxford Music Online (log in to each with your Westminster library card number).

May

May Day has long been a festival associated with dancing and celebration and more recently with political demonstrations. But 1 May 1517 has become known as Evil May Day. Tensions between native Londoners and foreigners lead one John Lincoln to persuade Dr Bell, the vicar of St Mary’s, Spitalfields to preach against incomers and to call upon “Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal.”. Even though the Under-Sherriff of London (none other than Sir Thomas More)  patrolled the streets, a riot broke out when they tried to arrest an apprentice for breaking the curfew. Soon afterwards, a crowd of young men began to attack foreigners and burn their houses. The rioting continued throughout May Day – fortunately, while some houses were burned down there were no fatalities. More than a thousand soldiers were needed to put down the riot. Lincoln and the other leaders were executed, but most were spared at the instigation of Cardinal Wolsey, who according to Edward Hall

‘fell on his knees and begged the king to show compassion while the prisoners themselves called out “Mercy, Mercy!” Eventually the king relented and granted them pardon. At which point they cast off their halters and “jumped for joy”.’

Sadly this was not the last outburst of anti-foreign feeling in London’s history but such incidents are thankfully rare.

June

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK RowlingA happier event took place on 30 June 1997 with the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.  It’s hard to remember a time when we didn’t all wish we’d received our letter to Hogwarts instead of going to a boring Muggle school.

But we all know about Harry so let’s move on.

July

To 12 July and first documented ride, in 1817, of the ‘dandy horse’ or ‘running machine’ or, to you and me, a bicycle without chains or pedals. This was the first means of transport to make use of the two-wheel principle and the creator was Baron Karl Drais , perhaps the most successful inventor you’ve never heard of, and he managed an impressive 10 miles in an hour. While it looks pretty clunky by today’s standards, Drais was inspired by the Year without a Summer of 1816 when crops failed and there weren’t enough oats to feed horses.

Dandy horse

Readers of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances may remember thar Jessamy in Frederica was very proud of his skill with the ‘pedestrian curricle’. The Observer newspaper was enthralled by the invention of  ‘the velocipede or swift walker’ claiming in 1819 that, on a descent, ‘it equalled a horse at full-speed’ and suggesting that

‘on the  pavements of the Metropolis it might be impelled with great velocity, but this is forbidden. One conviction, under Mr Taylor’s Paving Act, took place on Tuesday. The individual was fined 2/-.’

When he wasn’t inventing bicycles Karl Drais was making an early typewriter, a haybox cooker and a meat grinder.

And on 27 July 1967, we note the 50th anniversary of the decriminalistion of homosexuality.  This will be celebrated with many events throughout the year such as this one at Benjamin Britten’s home and others at various National Trust properties.

August

Most of us can probably remember what we were doing on 31 August 1997 when we heard of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and she will be on many people’s minds as the 20th anniversary of this event approaches.

A slightly more auspicious event took place on 17 August 1917, when the two war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, an event written about by Pat Barker in her novel Regeneration, as well as Stephen Macdonald’s play Not about Heroes. Owen wrote two of his most beloved poems – Dulce Et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth while he was in hospital (he also edited The Hydra, the patients’ magazine) and was tragically killed the following year at the very end of the war. Sassoon survived the war and wrote about his hospital experiences in the autobiographical novel Sherston’s Progress. You can read more about the lives of Owen, Sassoon and the other war poets in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card).

Wilfred Owen 

September

Another literary anniversary is upon us on 21 September, when we note the publication of one of the bestselling fantasy books of all time – The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, about a small, shy creature who becomes involved in a quest for a dragon’s hoard. It was offered first to the publisher Stanley Unwin who asked his 10 year old son Raynor to review it for him,

Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exiting (sic) time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home – rich!

This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.”

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienThe book was an instant success thanks to glowing newspaper reviews (The Manchester Guardian wrote ‘The quest of the dragon’s treasure  – rightfully the dwarves treasure – makes an exciting epic of travel, magical adventures, and – working up to a devastating climax, war. Not a story for pacifist children. Or is it?’) and has never been out of print. While embarking on the sequel, The Lord of the Rings, is a pretty daunting task, The Hobbit is still funny and exciting and highly recommended to that clichéd group – children of all ages.

October

The audience at Warner’s Theatre in New York on 6 October 1927 knew they were going to see an exciting new movie, but none of them could have predicted that motion pictures would never be the same again. The Jazz Singer was the first feature film with synchronised singing – no dialogue had been planned but the star, Al Jolson, couldn’t resist adlibbing on set and his ‘Wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet’ (in fact, his stage catchphrase) has electrified audiences ever since.

The film was a huge hit making over $2,000,000 (having cost only $400,000) and Jolson became an international star. The movies didn’t look back and within three years, silent film was a thing of the past.

The Jazz singer posterTo be honest, seen now, the film (about a Jewish boy who defies his father to sing jazz) is slow, sentimental and creaky, and the less said about Al Jolson’s penchant for blackface the better, but it’s worth checking out his performance to see the sort of charisma that sold out Broadway theatres for 20 years.

You can also see how fan magazines reported it at the time by checking out the Lantern site – a fantastic archive of Hollywood magazines that will keep film buffs busy for days…

November

As of 2015 there were 5640 female clergy in the Church of England (with 14,820 men) and it’s predicted that women will make up 43% of the clergy by 2035. Yet the General Synod only voted to allow women priests (against fierce opposition from conservatives) on 25 November 1992. Now they are central to the life of the Church of England  and most of their opponents have been won over. Some of this can, of course, be attributed to The Vicar of Dibley with Dawn French as the eponymous lady priest, but they’re now so much part of the landscape that even Ambridge, home of the Archers has had a woman vicar.

December

3 December will be the 50th anniversary of the first heart transplant operationperformed by the South African surgeon Christian Barnard. The first patient, Lewis Washkansky, died 18 days after the operation (though he was  able to walk and talk after the transplant). The second patient to receive a heart was a baby who sadly didn’t survive the operation, but the third patient, Philip Blaiberg lived for another nineteen months. Six months later, in May 1968, the first British heart transplant took place at the National Heart Hospital in  Westmoreland Street, Marylebone. Now about 3,500 heart transplants take place each year and 50% of patients live for at least 10 years. So while none of us want one, it’s good to know they’re available.

Christiaan Barnard

You can find out more about these events and many more in our 24/7 library and of course the in the libraries themselves. Happy 2017!

[Nicky]

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Read all about it! The Observer

“It is a fact, however disgraceful to human nature, that an old harpy living in a  court near Exeter Change has not less than five little girls in her hovel who she dresses out with all the frippery of meretriciousness and upon whose prostitution she supports an uncertain and even wretched existence – yet such is the force of habit she prefers wickedness and misery to honest labour and competency”

Not the opening of a Gothic novel but a story in the first ever edition of The Observer – the oldest Sunday newspaper in the world – first published on 4 December 1791, 225 years ago last Sunday. As you can see, even then, scandal was what people wanted to read with their Sunday breakfast – one wonders how many people went straight to Exeter Change in order to check the veracity of the piece…

Other stories in the first issue included the Duke of Bedford laying the foundation stone for the new Theatre Royal Drury Lane (it burned down in 1809) and a gentleman who died after being gored by ‘a tormented over-driven ox in Cheapside’. Plus the tantalising snippet that

“The unfortunate man who was driven so inhumanly by the mistaken mob a few days ago proved to be, not Oxley the mail-robber, as was supposed but a poor lunatic who had escaped from his keeper.”

They had a major coup in 1812 when their reporter Vincent Dowling was present at the assassination of the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby of the Houses of Parliament and was able to give a first-hand account:

‘The deed was perpetrated so suddenly that the man who fired the pistol was not instantly recognized by those in the lobby, but a person passing at the moment behind Mr Perceval promptly seized the pistol and which the assassin surrendered without resistance.’

The ‘person’ was in fact Dowling himself.

While The Observer is now regarded as a Liberal newspaper, it was anything but in its early days and was the last newspaper to accept subsidies from the secret service. It still maintained some editorial independence though, defying an injunction to report on the trial of the  so-called Cato Street conspirators. The proprietor William Clement was fined the enormous sum of £500, which he refused to pay, but the precedent was then set for newspapers writing about ongoing cases.

Another precedent was set in 1891 when The Observer employed its first woman editor, indeed its only woman editor to date. Rachel Beer was not just the first woman to edit the Observer, she was the first woman to edit any national newspaper. She was born into the wealthy Sassoon family (the poet Siegfried Sassoon was her nephew) and married Frederick Beer, whose father had bought The Observer in 1870. Frederick suffered from ill-health and Rachel eventually took over as editor.

Painting of Rachel BeerIn 1895 she bought The Sunday Times and edited this too for several years, becoming the first and perhaps the only person to edit two rival Sunday papers at the same time. As an editor her major coup was exposing the forgery at the heart of the Dreyfus case.

Beer continued to write for both papers, having leader columns written in indecipherable handwriting delivered at the last minute by her footman, no doubt much to the annoyance of the sub-editors.

Another pioneering woman who worked for The Observer was CA Lejeune, employed as a film critic from 1928 (having previously worked for the Manchester Guardian) at a time when it was fashionable not to take the art form seriously. Other celebrated writers for the paper have included the spy Kim Philby, who used his post as their Middle East editor as cover for his work as an MI5 agent, and George Orwell who reported on the end of the war from the Hotel Scribe in Paris.

You can look back at past issues of The Observer and read articles by Vita Sackville-West, Arthur Koestler, Kenneth Tynan and many others – the full Observer archive is available online with your Westminster library card. And very fascinating they are too! Don’t forget we also have the archives of The Guardian, the Times, the Illustrated London News and many other periodicals.

[Nicky]

The great and the good

George Ryan, pictured in bas relief at the base of Nelson's Column, London

All of us who live or work in Westminster have walked through Trafalgar Square dozens of times, but how many of us have actually looked at Nelson’s Column  properly? Certainly not me until recently when I happened to look at the bas-reliefs at the base of the pillar and wondered what they actually represented. Coincidentally on the bus home I heard a trailer for an excellent-sounding radio programme, Britain’s Black Past which mentioned the reliefs and revealed that at least one of the sailors pictured was black. A bit of research revealed that a third of the crew of the Victory, Nelson’s ship, were born outside Britain (including, somewhat surprisingly, three Frenchmen) and that one of the men pictured, George Ryan, was black.

As we celebrate Black History Month, what other memorials of interest can we find in Westminster?

Well, for a start there’s the oldest monument in London – Cleopatra’s Needle. Nothing to do with Cleopatra, it actually predates her by 1500 years, being made for Pharoah Thotmes III. One slightly odd feature of the Needle is that the four sphinxes, ostensibly there to guard it, actually face inwards so you’d think they’d be fairly easy to surprise…

Cleopatra's Needle, London

Moving forward to the eighteenth century brings us to Ignatius Sancho (1724-1780) who, despite pretty much the worst possible start in life (he was born on  slave ship and both his parents died soon after) became butler to the Duke of Montagu and, after securing his freedom, was the only eighteenth-century Afro-Briton known to have voted in a general election (in Westminster). He wrote many letters to the literary figures of the time such as the actor David Garrick and the writer Laurence Sterne, was painted by Thomas Gainsborough and was also a prolific composer.

IgnatiusSancho

You can read more about Sancho in several books available to view at Westminster City Archives, and listen to some of his compositions.

And if you happen to be passing the Foreign and Commonweath Office, see if you can spot the memorial to him.

A more famous near-contemporary of Sancho, was Olaudah Equiano (1747-1797), another former slave and author of one of the earliest autobiographies by a black Briton.

Olaudah Equiano

Like George Ryan, Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa as he was known in his lifetime) was a sailor who travelled to the Caribbean, South America and the Arctic, having been kidnapped from Africa as a child. While still a slave, Equiano converted to Christianity and was baptised in St Margaret’s Westminster. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was one of the first slave narratives and was reprinted several times in Equiano’s lifetime. He became a leading member of the  abolitionist movement, as one of the Sons of Africa, a group of former slaves in London who campaigned against slavery. You can see a plaque to him at 73 Riding House Street, Paddington and see him portrayed  by Youssoo N’Dour in the  film Amazing Grace.

Olaudah Equiana Plaque, London

One black Briton who needs almost no introduction is Mary Seacole (1805-1881), who fought racial prejudice to nurse and feed  soldiers in the Crimea and who was so popular with her former patients that the Times reported on 26th April 1856 that, at a public banquet at the Royal Surrey Gardens:

“Among the illustrious visitors was Mrs Seacole whose appearance awakened the most raputurous enthusiasm. The soldiers not only cheered her but chaired her around the gardens and she really might have suffocated from the oppressive attentions of her admirers were it not that two sergeants of extraordinary stature gallantly undertook to protect her from the pressures of the crowd.”

You can follow the famous war correspondent WH Russell in the Times Digital Archive (log in with your library card number) – he was a great admirer of Mrs Seacole. And if you haven’t already, do read her extraordinary autobiography The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. There are two plaques in her honour in Westminster – one at 147 George Street and one at 14 Soho Square.

Mary Seacole

Less well-known than Mary Seacole  is Henry Sylvester Williams (1869-1911), a Trinidadian teacher who came to London in the 1890s, studied Latin at King’s College and qualified as a barrister in 1897 (though he earned his living as a lecturer for the Temperance Association). He was a founder-member of the Pan-African Association, whose aims were

“to secure civil and political rights for Africans and their descendants throughout the world; to encourage African peoples everywhere in educational, industrial and commercial enterprise; to ameliorate the condition of the oppressed Negro in Africa, America, the British Empire, and other parts of the world”

In 1906, Williams was elected as a Progressive for Marylebone Council and, along with John Archer in Battersea, was one of the first black people elected to public office in Britain. You can read more about Williams (and the other people listed here) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and see a plaque erected by Westminster Council in his honour at 38 Church Street.

Bringing us nearer the present day are two former residents of Westminster who everyone knows. Guitarist Jimi Hendrix, discussed before in this blog, lived for a short time in 1968 at 23 Brook Street, Mayfair, and you can see a blue plaque to him there.

Jimi Hendrix, blue plaque

And we finish on perhaps the most famous memorial of recent years – in 2007 a bronze statue of Nelson Mandela was erected in Parliament Square in the presence of Mr Mandela himself.

Nelson Mandela stature, Parliament Square

You can find out more about the people in this blog by checking out our library catalogue and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as well as our Newspaper Archives. Plus if you want to know who the first Black British woman to write an autobiography was, don’t miss the event at Paddington Library on 27 October!

[Nicky]

A Bear of Very Little Brain

Commuters reading the London Evening News on Christmas Eve 1925 would have seen a new children’s story called ‘The Wrong Sort of Bees’, featuring the first appearance of a honey-loving bear. What the readers wouldn’t have known is that this wasn’t the last they would hear of this particular bear. Ten months later, on 14 October 1924, Winnie-the-Pooh was published and everyone’s favourite bear appeared between hard covers for the first time.

Opening page of Winnie the Pooh by A A Milne

Pooh’s creator, AA (Alan Alexander) Milne (1882-1956) grew up in Kilburn, where his father ran Henley House school. The school boasted HG Wells as one of its teachers and for a time Wells did teach the young Milne. He then went onto Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge where he made the right contacts and was able to get a job working on Punch. As well as writing comic essays and sketches he found success as a a novelist and as a playwright (The Dover Road was recently revived at Jermyn Street Theatre) but it was as a writer for children that he found lasting fame.

In 1921 Milne bought a teddy bear at Harrods for his baby son Christopher Robin which was soon named after Winnipeg, a Canadian bear in London Zoo. Winnipeg was a female bear which presumably accounts for the nickname Winnie. Young Christopher’s toys also included a donkey, a kangaroo and a piglet and later a tiger (but no owl). These toys, along with Christopher Robin himself found themselves appearing in Milne’s stories. The initial 1925 publication in the London Evening News was followed in 1926 by Winnie-the-Pooh, with The House at Pooh Corner following in 1928.

The books were instant successes. Christopher Milne found himself a rather unwilling celebrity and the subject of much teasing at school. Eventually he left London and spent many happy years running a bookshop in Dartmouth, Devon.

Incidentally, you can see Winnie, Piglet, Kanga and friends on display in the New York Public Library, where they are kept in captivity and much appreciate visitors from home… [see post script below]

Map inside cover of Winnie the Pooh, by A A Milne

For many of us, our enjoyment of the stories owes as much to the charming pictures as to the text. And these were drawn by another Londoner – EH (Ernest Howard) Shepard (1879-1976), who spent much of his life in St John’s Wood. He was born at 55 Springfield Road and in the 1930s lived in a splendid house in Melina Place with his son Graeme, whose own bear Growler was the model for Shepard’s drawings of Pooh. Shepard, of course, also drew the most famous set of illustrations for The Wind in the Willows (which AA Milne dramatised as Toad of Toad Hall) and he wrote a charming memoir of his St John’s Wood childhood called Drawn from Memory. This includes his memories of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and the famous 1887 fire that completely destroyed Whiteley’s department store (then in Westbourne Grove) which could be seen from Highgate Hill. You can see a plaque to EH Shepard at another of his Westminster homes – 10 Kent Terrace, Regents Park.

EH Shepard illustration from Winnie-the-Pooh

You can find out more about AA and Christopher Robin Milne and EH Shepard in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card number). You may also wish to look at the splendid bound volumes of Punch held by Westminster Reference Library.

Christopher RobinWinnie the PoohAnd of course, you’ll find plenty of Disney DVDs in our children’s libraries though you’ll have to try to ignore the American accents and the incongruous Gopher – we all know the real Pooh was a true Londoner!

[Nicky]

Post script: Catherine Cooke of the Sherlock Holmes Collection has paid several visits to Pooh and friends in their New York home, and sent these great pictures to share:

Winnie the Pooh and friends in the New York Public Library, January 2015. Picture credit: Catherine Cooke  Winnie the Pooh and friends in the New York Public Library, January 2015. Picture credit: Catherine Cooke

The Man Who Could Work Miracles

H.G. Wells by BeresfordA recent enquirer to the Guardian Notes and Queries column asked

“Which sci-fi author has come closest to predicting the future? Perhaps Isaac Asimov? Aldous Huxley? George Orwell? JG Ballard? Philip K Dick ? Arthur C Clarke?”

Guardian commenters weren’t slow to point out the name most conspicuously missing from that list with reader ‘geot22’ pointing out that

“Guys like Huxley and H.G. Wells’ do it for me. Huxley, spot on, predicted how our, ‘scientific,’ culture would evolve, and all culture with it. Wells’ Time Machine hit lots of sweet spots. My favorite is the bifurcation of man. Whereas we commonly, now, refer to the 99% and the 1%, or 0.1% …, Wells gave us the terms Eloi and Morlock, so vital for us to see our way through today.“

So what else did Wells predict? Moon landings, the second world war, lasers and genetic engineering have all come to pass, time travel, invisibility and alien invasions haven’t so far as we know…

And why are we thinking about Herbert George Wells at the moment? Because 21 September is his 150th birthday and we’re big fans of his books here in Westminster. Plus, he spent the last decades of his life living in Marylebone, first at 47 Chiltern Court, next to Baker Street Station and then at 13 Hanover Terrace just by Regents  Park (where his windows were shattered in an air-raid).

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

So which Wells should you read? Well, if you’re in any way a science fiction fan, The War of the Worlds is essential. It’s one of the first stories of alien invasion, this time in the homely surrounds of Surrey and South London, and contains some unforgettable images of the invading Martians and London, empty and silent after the population have fled. There have been several film versions and those of us of a certain age grew up with Jeff Wayne’s concept album, but the most famous adaptation is undoubtedly Orson Welles’ 1938 radio play which allegedly caused panic throughout America.

You can listen to it below and judge for yourself how frightening it is:

You can also find out what Wells himself thought, in this conversation between Wells and Welles:

Or perhaps you might prefer The Time Machine with its futuristic story of the feeble luxury-loving Eloi, evolved from the leisured classes, and brutal light-fearing Morlocks, once the workers. If you’ve never seen the 1960 film adaptation with Rod Taylor, you’re in for a treat. Another favourite is The Man Who Could Work Miracles, a short story within The Country of the Blind, and Other Stories (read it online here), about an office clerk who finds he has magical powers.

The Time Machine by HG Wells     The Country of the Blind and other stories by HG Wells

Science fiction is all very well, but Wells really deserves to be known for his social realism too. The History of Mr Polly and Kipps (soon to be seen in the West End as the musical Half a Sixpence), both of which draw on Wells’ unhappy experience as a draper’s assistant, are probably his best known novels but the lesser known ones offer their own charms. A particular favourite is The Dream, which combines both Utopian fantasy and harsh realism as a man from the future tells his friends of his dream of being a publisher’s clerk who becomes a soldier in World War I.

Kipps by HG Wells     The history of Mr Polly by HG Wells

There are plenty of places to find out more about Wells’ long life and career. Your first port of call should be the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your Westminster library card) but having had your appetite whetted you may well want a full biography – there are many to be found in Westminster Libraries. Or you may wish to try David Lodge’s novel A Man of Parts which focuses on Wells’ many affairs.

Whether you commemorate Wells’ sesquicentennial with a book, a film or a radio play you cannot fail to be amazed at the extraordinary range of his works. Whatever you choose, you’re in for a treat.

[Nicky]

Everyone but Shakespeare

Westminster Libraries’ users, unless they’ve been living under a rock, will know that today is the 400th anniversary of  William Shakespeare’s death. Quite a lot of us probably think of it as his birthday too though that is a little more dubious. We know he was baptised on 26 April 1564 and it is usually assumed that he was born three days before though there’s no hard evidence for that, or for very much else about his early life.

If you want to know more, read Bill Bryson’s excellent short book Shakespeare: the world as a stage which goes through the established facts we have about his life (surprisingly few – we can’t, for example, be sure where he went to school, only that he picked up some education somewhere, presumably in Stratford). But while you’re celebrating the Bard,  possibly by watching a live broadcast by the Royal Shakespeare Company, spare a thought for some of the other figures whose anniversaries are overshadowed by Will’s.

Top of the list is Spain’s most famous author Miguel Cervantes, who died on the same day as Shakespeare.

Cervantes’ greatest work, Don Quixote, is often called ‘the first modern European novel’ and tells of an elderly knight who is obsessed with tales of chivalry and who, after many adventures with his squire Sancho Panza, is bemused to find he has become a famous fictional character himself.

Don Quixote has been played in films and television by actors as varied as Boris Karloff, Peter O’Toole and Andy Garcia, though the book tends to defeat all but the most determined readers (the most famous incident, that of Don Quixote tilting at windmills comes a few chapters in). Why not resolve to be one of the elite who has actually read it?

A less well-known figure from the arts whose birthday we celebrate this week is composer Dame Ethel Smyth who was born on 23 April 1858. As well as several well-regarded operas (the most famous of which is probably The Wreckers, a tragic story set in eighteenth-century Cornwall) she composed the  March of the Women, the unofficial anthem of the votes for women movement which you may have heard on the soundtrack to the film Suffragette. Her activities for the movement even lead to her imprisonment for window-smashing. She was visited in Holloway by the conductor Thomas Beecham who watched a band of women singing the March in the quadrangle while its composer conducted with a toothbrush from her cell window. For more on this remarkable woman and to listen to some of her works (including a better sound recording than the one used for the video below), check out our online music resources.

Another figure from the arts who shared a birthday with Shakespeare was the  cinematographer and film director Ronald Neame who died in 2010 at the grand old age of 99.  His father Elwyn was a Bond Street photographer and occasional film director and his mother Ivy Close was a bona fide silent star (who received the ultimate accolade of a mention in an episode of Downton Abbey, perhaps not entirely coincidentally produced by Neame’s grandson Gareth) . Neame’s career started young – he was assistant director on Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie Blackmail and continued until the 1980s, taking in I Could Go On Singing, Judy Garland’s final film and perhaps his most famous work, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie for which Maggie Smith won an Oscar.  In his 90s he wrote an autobiography Straight from the Horse’s Mouth which is as pleasingly gossipy as one could wish.

For those who prefer deathiversaries to birthdays, why not commemorate the death, on 23 April 1975, of actor William Hartnell, best known as the First Doctor. Hartnell was born in St Pancras to an impoverished  single mother who managed to get him a place in the famed Italia Conti Stage School (attended by Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence a few years earlier). At 16 he left and joined the famed Frank Benson company which specialised in touring productions of Shakespeare. He soon turned to films, mostly in serious roles either in gangster films such as Brighton Rock or as NCOs – you’ve probably seen him in the title role in Carry on Sergeant (a role he more or less repeated in the long running sitcom The Army Game). But nothing in his 40 year career matched the success of his three years as the curmudgeonly eccentric  time traveller. It was a a role he loved and he attracted a huge personal fan mail.

You can find out more about Hartnell’s life in the biography by his grand-daughter Who’s there? and in our newspaper archives and  the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card number) . Also check out some more clips of his acting on another  birthday celebrant – Youtube which is 11 years old today!

[Nicky]

A look ahead to 2016

Well, 2015 is almost over, which means it’s time to look forward to 2016 and see what anniversaries we will be commemorating. It’s a particularly interesting year for them.

January

One of the great unsung heroes of medicine will be remembered on 1 January (or if he isn’t, he should be!). On that date in 1916, Oswald Hope Robertson, a British born research scientist from Harvard  Medical School, then working in France, carried out the first successful blood transfusion using blood that had been stored and refrigerated.

There had been blood transfusions before (the soon-to-be-more-famous-as-an-architect Christopher Wren experimented on injecting fluids into dogs as early as 1857) but the donor and the recipient had both needed to be present as there was no way of storing the blood for later use. Robertson is usually credited with setting up the first blood bank and thus being instrumental in saving thousands of lives. So think about him if you donate blood or if you are someone who needs a transfusion. And of course, with any reference to blood donation, a mention of Tony Hancock becomes compulsory: “A pint! That’s very nearly an armful!


February

February brings with it the 90th anniversary of Black History Month. Yes, we know that this is commemorated in October in Britain but in the USA it’s in February. The first events were in the second week of February (chosen because it coincided with the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and the great abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass) when the historian Carter G Woodson of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History announced the first Negro History Week.

This was taken up by school boards in North Carolina, Delaware and West Virginia and was soon successful enough that other states followed. By the 1970s, the week had become a month and had renamed itself as Black History Month. In Britain it has been celebrated since 1987 and is now a national institution.


March

There’s no doubt that one of the biggest anniversaries next year will be in July when football fans will be celebrating 50 years since England last won a major tournament. All very tedious for those of us not in thrall to the beautiful game but even non-footie fans will want to remember an associated story from 19 March 1966 when the World Cup was stolen from Westminster Central Hall where it was on display at a stamp exhibition. A £4,500 reward (about £70,00 in today’s money according to the excellent Measuring Worth site) was offered. A ransom note asking for £15,000 was received (the thief probably should have gone for the stamps which were worth £3 million) and the chap who posted it was soon arrested but the real thieves were never found.

However the cup was found, by the hero of the hour – Pickles, a border collie who spotted a newspaper wrapped package next to a car in South Norwood and soon uncovered the missing trophy. Read more about the story in the Guardian:

“Now Pickles began the life of a celebrity. He starred in a feature film, The Spy with the Cold Nose, and appeared on Magpie, Blue Peter and many other TV shows. He was made Dog of the Year, awarded a year’s free supply of food from Spillers and there were offers to visit Chile, Czechoslovakia and Germany.”

Pickles received an appropriate reward and British Pathé was there to capture the moment:


April

April is going to be Bardtastic as the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare will be remembered on 23 April (Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote died on the same day so expect to hear plenty about him). Shakespeare’s Globe will be projecting 23 short films on the South Bank of the Thames, one for each of the plays. They’ll probably being putting on some theatre too.

A more lowbrow commemoration will be on 11 April, 80 years after the first Butlins holiday camp opened in Skegness (which as we all know, is ‘so bracing’) in 1936. The camp was opened by Amy Johnson, the pioneer aviator and was an instant success. A week’s holiday with three meals a day and all the knobbly knees competitions you could eat would have set you back 36 shillings and people flocked there, though three years later the camp was requisitioned for use as a naval training camp. Read about the history of Butlins in Sylvia Endacott’s Butlin’s: 75 years of fun!


May


Five years later on 9 May 1941, an event took place that got little publicity at the time but which literally changed the course of the war. On that day the German submarine U-110 was captured by the Royal Navy, and with it an Enigma machine complete with code books. Fortunately the Germans didn’t realise that the machine had been retrieved (the submarine commander tried to scuttle it rather than allow it to be captured and he himself drowned) and so it became a vital part of the code breaking activities at Bletchley Park led by Alan Turing.

The Imitation GameThere are plenty of books about Bletchley available in Westminster Libraries – find out lots more in a previous blog post on the subject – or you could borrow and watch the recent film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch.


June

PocahontasMoving back in time, 12 June sees the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Rebecca Rolfe from Virginia with her husband and baby son Thomas. She stayed at the Bell Savage Inn in Ludgate Hill (which itself had a very interesting history, being a former theatre) and soon became the toast of the town, being presented to King James I, attending a masque by Ben Jonson and having her portrait painted by the Dutch artist Simon de Passe. Sadly though, London didn’t suit her health and she planned to return to Virginia the following year, but tragically died at Gravesend without seeing her homeland again.

Why am I telling you all this? Because Rebecca Rolfe, better known by her Algonquian name of Pocahontas was one of the first native born Americans to visit this country. You may have  seen the Disney film but the reality is much more interesting. You can read about how Pocahontas saved the life of Captain John Smith and ensured peace between her people and the English settlers in A man most driven: Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the founding of America.


July

Castleton Knight advert, 1923Readers of cinema trade journals in the 1920s would have noticed adverts for Castleton Knight (a producer and distributor) who claimed he could ‘show a perfect picture through any fog’. This boast seems rather baffling now but anyone who attended the cinema before 1956 would have known exactly what the problem was – smog. This didn’t just affect the streets of London and other cities – it found its way into buildings too.

In 1952 an opera at Sadlers Wells had to be cancelled and the leading lady was treated for smoke damage. It has been calculated that 4000 people died in just a few days in 1952 as a direct consequence of the London smog.

On 5 July 1956 the Clean Air Act was passed, which introduced smoke control areas in which only smokeless fuels could be used and which ensured the removal of power stations from cities among other measures. Smog, in Britain at least, is a thing of the past though other countries certainly have a way to go to reduce air pollution.

You can read about the smog in The Big Smoke: a history of air pollution in London since medieval times, by Peter Brimblecombe. Or you could check out some contemporary newspaper reports – a picture in the Illustrated London News shows the Christmas Tree being erected in Trafalgar Square four days late because of the smog.
(And no, we don’t know what Castleton Knight’s invention actually was).


August

If this article had been published by Westminster Libraries 25 years ago, it would have been typed on an electric typewriter or perhaps a PC with a basic word processing programme and then sent out in a paper newsletter rather than being researched and published online. Not that many of us would have known what the word online meant. There were online databases but it was a laborious process logging on to each one individually and then printing out search results and few but academics had access to the right computers and modems anyway.

However all this changed thanks to Tim Berners Lee, the father of the World Wide Web. While the first website went live in December 1990, it was on 6 August 1991 that Berners-Lee posted a summary of the World Wide Web project on several internet newsgroups, which marked the debut of the web as a publicly available service on the internet.

You can still read Berners-Lee’s post here. Subsequently he has been knighted, awarded the Order of Merit, named by Time Magazine as one the Hundred most important people of the twentieth century and even took part in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.


September

The World Wide Web has certainly changed all our lives. A smaller, but no less important event – for the people of London anyway – took place on 2 September 1666, 350 years ago when a fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane and raged for 5 days. Over 400 acres of London were destroyed including approximately 13,000 houses and 67 of the 109 city churches as well as St Pauls Cathedral.  A witness to the Great Fire of London was the diarist Samuel Pepys, who ‘saw a lamentable fire’ with

“Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the River or bringing them into lighters that lay off. Poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.”

Old St Paul's Cathedral in flames
It took nearly half a century to rebuild the City, with St Pauls not completed until 1711.

By Permission of Heaven: the story of the Great Fire of London, by Adrian TinniswoodFor a first hand account of the city before the Fire, have a look at John Stow’s Survey of London, published in 1603, which describes in detail many of the churches and other buildings that were destroyed in 1666. For more on the Fire itself, you could listen to the podcast on the subject from Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time or you could read Adrian Tinniswood’s By Permission of Heaven: the story of the Great Fire of London.


October

In October 1941, 75 years ago, a magazine called Liliput published a cartoon of a group of schoolgirls reading a notice with the caption “Owing to the international situation, the match with St Trinian’s has been postponed.” The cartoonist, Ronald Searle, was to spend most of the war as a prisoner of the Japanese, though he continued drawing even in the terrible conditions of Changi. On his return home he began to submit cartoons to Punch, The Strand, Radio Times and other magazines and his first book, Hurrah for St Trinian’s and other lapses was published in 1948.

St Trinian's : the entire appalling business - Ronald SearleThe ghastly schoolgirls were soon followed by their schoolboy equivalent, eternal prep school cynic Nigel Molesworth but it was St Trinians which remained Searle’s greatest success. The school, with its pupils more interested in the racing results than their education and disreputable staff soon inspired a series of successful films along with several more books, and the cartoons were collected together as St Trinian’s : the entire appalling business.

St Trinians  was even revived in the twenty first century with two more films starring Rupert Everett and Colin Firth and no doubt will continue to entertain and horrify for many years to come.


November

One anniversary that will definitely not go unmarked, by the BBC at least, falls on 2 November 1936 when the television service officially opened (though there had been experimental transmissions since 1932). Until the war put an end to television (the engineers were need for more important work), programmes were only broadcast within a 40 mile radius of Alexandra Palace and by 1939, 23,000 licences had been sold. The Times was impressed with the first day’s transmission

“As seen on the small screen of a receiver in Broadcasting House, the inaugural ceremony was more successful than those previously unacquainted with the achievements of television had expected… the very successful transmissions of the male television announcer suggested that there is a technique to be learned by those who wish to be well-televised.”


December

The final anniversary of the year is, appropriately enough, a festive one. For  Christmas 1616 King James I requested a masque (a courtly entertainment involving singing, dancing and general razzamatazz) from the poet Ben Jonson. Christmas, his masque begins

Enter Christmas, with two or three of the Guard.

He is attir’d in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white Shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse, and his Drum beaten before him.

While he’s not actually *called* Father Christmas, he is soon followed by his 10 children – Carol, Misrule, Gambol, Offering, Wassail, Mumming, New-Year’s-Gift, Post and Pair,  Minced-Pie and Baby-Cake, each followed by a torch-bearer carrying marchpane, cakes and wine. It seems that this was the first time Christmas had been personified so 2016 can really be considered his 400th birthday. Find out more about the history of Father Christmas.


We’ve mentioned lots of books and online resources above, but if you want to find out more about these or any other anniversaries throughout the year, there’s much more to be found using both the 24/7 Library and of course the libraries themselves – search the catalogue and see where it takes you!

[Nicky]