Tag Archives: World War I

The Silvertown Explosion

London's disasters, by John WithingtonWe live in a time of international terrorism. London is seen as a prime target and is on high alert for such an attack. There have been attacks and bombings in London before of course, especially during the IRA ‘Troubles’.

But it was one hundred years ago on Friday 19 January 1917 when occurred London’s largest ever loss of life through explosion. However, this was not due to enemy action, even though it took place during a World War – it was home grown and totally avoidable.

One of the main industries in Silvertown at the time was the Brunner Mond chemical factory, which produced soda crystals and caustic soda. However the caustic soda plant had been closed down in 1912 and was standing idle. In 1915, this was “practically requisitioned” by the Government agency, the Explosives Supply Department who wanted to use it to purify the explosive trinitrotoluene (TNT) for use in ammunition. This was despite the fact that the plant was located in a heavily populated area, which also had other volatile chemical and refining industries, a point stressed by the Brunner Mond directors who were opposed to the plans. The government thought that the production of TNT was safe as long as the purification process (to be undertaken here) was kept separate from the manufacture of raw TNT. Consequently the processes did not have to comply with the regulations of the 1875 Explosives Act.

Production started in September 1915 on a 24-hour basis, employing three shifts. The protracted battles of trench warfare were consuming vast quantities of ammunition (and lives), while making little tactical advance.

Silvertown Explosion Memorial, near Pontoon Dock station.

The memorial to the Silvertown explosion. This is located below the Docklands Light Railway near Pontoon Dock station.

On the night of 19 January 1917, the inevitable happened and there was an explosion at 6.52 pm. It is believed that this was caused by a fire in the melt pot room. The reason for the fire breaking out was not established, as the witnesses who raised the alarm were killed in the explosion. It should not have been unexpected though. Only in the previous month, the plant had been visited by a government inspector, whose report stated that

“It is perfectly clear that the management at Silvertown did not pay sufficient attention to the explosion risk attached to the handling of TNT.”

In particular he reported that there were no precautions in place against friction sparks. The explosion was so severe that it destroyed the factory, other local factories, the local fire station (which was opposite the factory and had only opened in 1914) and damaged thousands of homes. The explosion could be heard 100 miles away. Sixty-nine people were killed in the explosion with four more subsequently dying from their injuries. Another ninety-eight people were seriously injured and more than nine hundred suffered minor injuries.

Plaque, Postman's Park, City of London

A plaque in Postman’s Park in the City of London commemorates a policeman who was on duty outside the factory when the fire broke out. He stayed at his post to warn people of the dangers of explosion, but later lost his life in hospital from the injuries he received.

The loss of life in the Silvertown disaster would be treated as a major scandal today, but unfortunately then it was just another statistic among the countless lives lost already in the Great War and those still to die before peace came in 1918. With no radio, television, internet or social media in those days, it was far easier for the government to conceal bad news. There was postal and press censorship, designed to prevent contact with the enemy and to ensure that the conflict was presented to the public in a pro-Allied light.

This censorship is illustrated by using the usual research routes. To see how news was reported at the time of an event, one can search newspaper archives such as the Times Digital Archive (log in with your library card number). However, searching for Silvertown explosion or Silvertown disaster brings no results.  Neither does a similar search in The Illustrated London News. Even searching Gale News Vault for Silvertown 1917 only brings up an article in The Times from 1925, appealing for funds to rebuild St. Barnabas Church which had been destroyed in the explosion.

Searching the Times Digital Archive by date, on 20 February there is only a brief one line report that

“there had been an explosion in a munitions factory near London, and that considerable loss of life and damage to property were feared.”

A fuller report is given on Monday 22 February (on page 9) but again it refers to ‘The explosion near London’ and does not state the actual location or name of the factory concerned. There are no illustrations. It is interesting to note though, that while there is some ‘positive spin’ in the reporting the paper does make some critical comments about the slack enforcement of safety regulations by the authorities.

The dearth of contemporary reports, while interesting from an historical point of view, means that we have to look elsewhere for more information. One book that contains quite a bit about the explosion is London’s Disasters: from Boudicca to the banking crisis, by John Withington (pictured above), available from your library.

[Malcolm]

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]

Remembering the Somme – the story of Major Booth

Last Friday, in the Long Room of Lords Cricket Ground, the Westminster Cathedral School held a special assembly in commemoration of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Years 3, 4, 5, and 6 sat attentively ahead of an audience including parents, staff from Lords and Westminster City Council, Chelsea pensioners and other invited guests.

Army and Navy Co-operative Society Limited, abridged list of officers' equipment and necessaries for home and foreign service [1916-1918] . Image property of Westminster City ArchivesThe day, curated by the Archives’ Education Officer Peter Daniel, started with a visit from the ghost of a soldier from Pimlico – Ernest Richard Boots (now aged 133 years). In a flurry of historical hats and playful repartee with the children, this charismatic apparition explained the features of his army uniform and how each was suited to the international arena of the First World War. Two modern-day soldiers from the 7 Rifles, the Army Reserve Battalion in Westminster, then explained how the uniforms had changed in accordance with technological developments.

The main attraction of the day followed, when the Year 5 class of the Westminster Cathedral School performed a play about Major Booth for their colleagues. The play told the story of Major Booth, who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and was a player for the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and Second Lieutenant in the British Army. The play had previously been performed by the MOD Theatre group.

Booth’s biography intersected with various key moments in 20th century history. The story included encounters with the Suffragettes and Mahatma Ghandi. Booth’s path to success as a cricketer and his role in the army showed how the world had been unfair before the war and how after the war, through the equality of sacrifice of all the soldiers and those involved in the war effort at home, British society came to adopt the determination to pursue a fairer, better and more inclusive structure.

Each of the roles in the play was shared with different children taking it in turn to act each part and the Year 5s joined in chorus to sing an ensemble of wartime songs. The songs which had been used as a mnemonic tool to teach the children about history, now staggered the performance beautifully.

The show ended with England’s cricket anthem Jerusalem and a minute of silence led by Chelsea Pensioner John Gallagher with live accompaniment.

A central message came through, questioning the ‘whys’ behind inequality and discrimination of class, gender, and race:

Voice 1: I was a have
Voice 2: I was a have not
All: What hadst thou given that I gave not?

If you’d like to know more about this project, try the following:

[Michelle]

“All fares please!”

WW1 singalong at Westminster Music Library, to celebrate 100 years of women in public transportLast Thursday, Westminster Music Library marked one hundred years of women in transport with a commemorative First World War-themed sing-along.
In partnership with London Transport Museum and their Battle Bus project we sang our way through a variety of songs from the Great War era, setting the scene for a fascinating insight into women’s roles during The First World War.

London Transport Museum’s A Driving Force: 100 Years of Women in Transport is an engaging exhibition exploring the one hundred year history of women in public transport, and Westminster Music Library has been proud to host it for the past two weeks. Standing at the library’s entrance, it was a draw for many of our customers, who, like us, found these seldom-told tales of drivers, instructors, and the fondly-named ‘clippies’ to be an intriguing topic. Steering its way from 1915 (the date of the first female omnibus conductor) right up to the present day, the exhibition includes interviews, stories and anecdotes from female bus workers past and present.

Our WW1 sing-along to mark the anniversary was interspersed with accounts of women ‘on the buses’:

“On the buses the skirt question occasionally arose, with objections to conductresses going on the top deck; however, this seems to have been combined with the pre-war convention that ‘ladies rode inside’ and therefore things were a bit rowdier upstairs. The buses were crowded at all times – the small number of private motorists, combined with a shortage of petrol, meant that bus and tube travel was democratized. The prevalence of shift-work, the curtailed shop opening hours and the number of soldiers passing through London on leave disrupted the more rigid patterns of travel before the war: ladies who had the leisure to shop mid-mornings found themselves squashed alongside factory girls and troops. Several conductresses found themselves getting a hard time from such ladies, and agreed among themselves that they were getting a dose of resentment from women who had lost their maids!”

 A Driving Force: 100 Years of Women in Transport exhibition at Westminster Music Library, October 2015It was a privilege to hear such fascinating reports from a time so far removed from our own.

Our event was organised by Ruth Walters, Music Services Co-ordinator, who not only brought these stories to life through her engaging reading, but also expertly led all the singing.

Westminster Music Library drew an enthusiastic crowd with their vocal chords at the ready, and it was a pleasure to welcome back pianist Hélène Favre-Bulle, whose playing perfectly complemented the singing. Friends of Westminster Music Library will recognise Hélène as the accompanist for our Joint Force Singers choral project. Also ‘aboard’ on backing vocals were Miriam, Andrew and Jon, all members of the Music Library team, and we were delighted to welcome London Transport Museum’s Battle Bus Learning Officer Kathryn Palmer-Skillings. Her extensive knowledge was much appreciated as she answered our audience’s questions and gave further information on the topic during our tea break.

Ruth With Kathryn Palmer-Skillings - Battle Bus Learning Officer, at A Driving Force: 100 Years of Women in Transport exhibition. Westminster Music Library, October 2015

We’ve really enjoyed hosting this fascinating exhibition and running the event at the Music Library, and we are especially grateful to London Transport Museum for the loan and their time spent ensuring that both were successful. Our audience loved it, too, with comments particularly highlighting the uniqueness of the theme. Coincidentally our event was held on National Poetry Day, and Ruth couldn’t miss an opportunity to mark it with a few lines of very appropriate verse:

War girls, by Jessie Pope

There’s the girl who clips your ticket for the train,
And the girl who speeds the lift from floor to floor,
There’s the girl who does a milk-round in the rain,
And a girl who calls for orders at your door.
Strong, sensible, and fit,
They’re out to show their grit,
And tackle jobs with energy and knack,
No longer caged and penned up,
They’re going to keep their end up,
Till the khaki soldier boys come marching back.

There’s the motor girl who drives a heavy van,
There’s the butcher girl who brings your joint of meat,
There’s the girl who cries ‘all fares please!’ like a man,
And the girl who whistles taxis down the street,
Beneath each uniform,
Beats a heart that’s soft and warm,
Though of canny mother-wit they show no lack;
But a solemn statement this is,
They’ve no time for love and kisses
‘Till the khaki soldier boys come marching back.

Ruth reads at A Driving Force: 100 Years of Women in Transport exhibition. Westminster Music Library, October 2015

Although Westminster Music Library’s hosting of the mobile exhibition has now ‘reached the end of the line’, if you missed it and would like to catch it, its next temporary home is Westbourne Park Bus Garage.

Westminster Music Library enjoys sharing all things interesting and we love adding a musical twist, we’re delighted that our partnership with London Transport Museum made this possible.

[Jon]

Forgotten authors of the First World War

The 39 Steps by John BuchanDuring the past year we have been focusing on books about the First World War. The centenary of the war’s commencement has seen a surge in authors writing about the war and its aftermath and we have highlighted many of these in our WW1 reading lists. There has also been a renewed interest in some of the contemporary authors who were influenced by the conflict. One of these, John Buchan, has been consistently popular, with his eve-of war thriller The Thirty-nine Steps having had a number of film adaptations as well as spawning a current West End musical.

However, there are other authors, once household names, but now largely forgotten. Their tomes gather dust in library stores like old soldiers awaiting a recall to arms…

A Sub and a Submarine, by Percy F WestermanTake for instance Percy F Westerman (1876-1959). He wrote his first book for boys in 1908, giving up an Admiralty appointment to write full-time in 1911. During World War 1 he was initially employed on coastal duties by the Royal Navy, but in 1918 he was commissioned by the Royal Flying Corps as an instructor of navigation. In the 1930s he was voted the most popular author of books for boys. Most of his books were adventures with a military or naval theme. He continued writing until his death, publishing at least 174 titles. Amongst these are With Beatty off Jutland and A Sub and a Submarine.

Biggles in France, by Captain W E JohnsA similar author was Captain WE Johns (1893-1968). William Earle Johns first enlisted in the Territorial Army in 1913. He was sent overseas in 1915, serving at Gallipoli, and later in Egypt and Greece. In September 1917 he was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps. He was shot down in Germany in September 1918 while on a mission to bomb Mannheim and remained a prisoner of war until the end of hostilities. He continued an RAF career until 1931. He started writing in 1922, creating his most famous character, the ace pilot ‘Biggles’ in 1932, who was then to feature in some 100+ stories until the author’s death in 1968.
The Biggles books were the staple diet of boys’ reading material in the 1950s. The ‘Captain’ was self-awarded – his final RAF rank was Flying Officer (equivalent to an Army Lieutenant).

Sir Henry John Newbolt (1862-1938) graduated from Oxford and at first practised law before becoming a poet, historian and novelist. At the start of the War, Newbolt along with over 20 other leading British writers was brought into the War Propaganda Bureau which had been formed to promote Britain’s interests and maintain public opinion. He later became Controller of Telecommunications at the Foreign Office, being knighted in 1915. His written works include The Naval History of the Great War and Submarine and Anti-Submarine (1919) He is probably best remembered now for his cricketing poem Vitai Lampada which includes the line: “Play up! Play up! And play the game!

Submarine and anti-submarine, by Sir Henry John Newbolt

Bernard Newman (1897-1968) was a great nephew of the author George Eliot. He initially served in the trenches in World War 1, lying about his age to enlist, but because of his fluency in French his French liaison officer used him to go undercover in Paris. Accompanied by a female French agent they investigated loose talk by Allied soldiers about troop movements. He developed an interest in espionage on which he became an authority, writing fictional and non-fiction books on this subject. He was to write more than 100 books in total raging from politics to travel, mystery novels, science fiction and children’s books. The Cavalry Went Through (1930) is a novel about the Dardanelles campaign

The War in the Air, by H G WellsHG Wells can hardly be described as a forgotten author! His novels The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine are still widely read and seen as classic works of early Science Fiction. However, there are some other works which are less well-known and largely unread now. During the early 20th century he wrote a number of ‘fantasies of possibility’ based on his futurological writings. Most of these prophesied a future world war and include The War in the Air (1908). This was written only five years after the Wright Brothers pioneer heavier-than-air powered manned flight, and a year before Louis Bleriot made the first cross-channel flight. However, such was the rate of technical development that aerial warfare became a reality in World War 1.
The British Government actually established the Royal Flying Corps (the forerunner of the Royal Air Force) in 1912. He also wrote The World Set Free (1914) which foretold of an atomic bomb. A short story The Land Ironclads (1903) was acknowledged by Winston Churchill as originating the idea of the tank. In 1914 he wrote The War that will End War which set out his case for supporting the allies. A novel Mr Britling Sees it Through (1916) was an account of war on the Home Front.

In 1918 he was recruited by Lord Northcliffe’s Ministry of Propaganda to work on a statement of war aims, which included the setting up of the League of Nations. After the end of hostilities, Wells viewed the war as an inevitable result of the rivalries between nation states, fuelled by a nationalistic teaching of history. He envisaged a new kind of history textbook, and assembling a team of specialist advisors wrote his ‘Plain History of Life and Mankiind’ – The Outline of History (1920) which became an international best-seller.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was an American author, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 (the first woman to win this award), and nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature on three occasions.  She is probably best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning book The Age of Innocence and for Ethan Frome. But another of her works was A Son at the Front (1923)

Many of the books listed above have long been out of print, but some can be found in the stock of Westminster Libraries (click on the links in the text), whilst those not in stock might be obtainable through the interlending service.

More information about the authors featured here, including complete lists of their works, can be found in Contemporary Authors, and in some cases through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in to both with your library card number).

A selection of novels set in the prelude to, during and in the aftermath of the Great War, plus a selection of non-fiction works about the war and its aftermath can be found on our ‘book lists’ page:

First world War reading list - screen shot

[Malcolm]

Monthly Meet Up for the young at heart

Monthly Meet Up at St John's Wood LibraryEvery last Wednesday of the month, St John’s Wood Library, together with Penfold Community Hub, hosts events for those who are aged 50+. At these Monthly Meet Ups coffee, tea and croissants are served but the true treats are the social moments and food for thought created by interesting speakers. The feedback we receive is very positive, so in turn it is very gratifying to organise the programme.

Health topics are well received (dementia, fall prevention, Medication Passport, Healthwatch, etc) but the most popular events are those of general interest. Therefore, author Barbara Tennenbaum, who gave two presentations, talked about surviving adversity and never giving up – she and the group Golden Age Players performed a preview of her latest play. Blue Badge Guide for Westminster and the City of London, Richard Fenton, shared with us some fascinating facts he encountered while preparing for his Institute of Tourist Guiding exams. Artist Eszter Rajna talked about her painting process, while chemistry professor Laura Beal talked about inventions through the decades and even brought some ‘potions’ and created special effects. On 17 December 2014, for the special December event, our last speaker, David Turner, gave a talk on Victorian Railways that generated some comparisons from Victorian times onwards!

Monthly Meet Up at St John's Wood Library

A very popular theme has been local history. A local resident but also a media star, Harvey Gould (West End Extra) talked about his father’s and his time as wire operators in the military service. Both fought in World War One and Two respectively. As it happened, there were members in the audience who had also participated, so a lively exchange of reminiscence took place.

Such treasure troves of memories can be difficult to preserve and find. So we invited Louise Brodie, Jeanne Strang and Jane Leaver to talk about the St John’s Wood Memories website. They described what the portal aims to do and invited everyone to bring in photos which we could scan at the library and post online, along with their stories, on both the portal and Westminster Archives website. We were honoured to have with us Peter Daniel from Westminster Archives and delighted that Elaine Marsh of the Home Library Service organised a trip for several library patrons who use the service.

Monthly Meet Up at St John's Wood Library

The next Meet Up is on Wednesday 28 January – contact the library for more details.

[Ivana]

 

2015 – Anniversaries Are Go!

As has become traditional (see 2014 and 2013), here’s our choice of one anniversary for each month to look forward to in 2015…

January

Books about mobile phones and the mobile phone industryA few seconds past midnight on 1 January 1985, Sir Ernest Harrison received a phone call from his son to wish him a Happy New Year. A few hours later, he received another call, this time from comedian Ernie Wise who, for reasons unknown, was dressed in Victorian costume and riding on a nineteenth century mail coach. So far, so dull, but these were actually the first two calls made on mobile phones in the UK, Sir Ernest Harrison being the chair of Vodaphone.

If you’d bought a mobile phone in 1985, it would have set you back £3000 and you’d have been able to talk for 20 minutes before the battery ran down. Though you’d have been unlikely to be calling another mobile since by 1995 only 7% of the UK population had them. Still, you’ve probably got one now: by 2004 there were more mobile phones in the country than people. For more about the mobile phone industry, see our online business resources

February

Long walk to freedom - the autobiography of Nelson MandelaOn 11 February 1990, after 27 years imprisonment, mostly on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela was finally released and took his Long Walk to Freedom. The event was captured by the cameras and broadcast around the world. You can read contemporary reports in our newspaper archive and also read biographies of the great man who died in December 2013.

March

Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng Chiang, by Terrance DicksOn 26 March 2005 came the television event that some of us had been waiting for since 1989 and, frankly, for most of that time had never believed would happen. Doctor Who returned to our screens after a hiatus of 16 years and was an instant success, spawning two spin-offs (Torchwood and the Sarah-Jane Adventures) as well as making us more familiar with both John Barrowman and Cardiff Bay than we had ever thought possible. Check out one of the many hundreds of books on the most famous time traveller of all, and explore some of the obscure links between the Doctor and our very own detective, Sherlock Holmes

April

Anthony Trollope24 April 2015 sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anthony Trollope, prolific novelist and long time post office employee. His novels aren’t read as much as they should be nowadays, which is a shame, and it may be that he is destined to be best remembered as the inventor of the pillar box, first installed in Jersey in 1852. The first ones were set up in England in 1853 – at first there were only five – in Fleet Street, The Strand, Pall Mall, Piccadilly and Rutland Gate. The early ones were green – they didn’t assume their familiar red colour until the 1870s. See The British Postal Museum and Archive for more history.

May

In May it will undoubtedly be quite hard to avoid the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta.
Zeppelin nights, by Jerry WhiteHowever, rather closer to home was an event at 16 Alkham Road, Stoke Newington, which has the unenviable distinction of being the first house in London to be attacked from the air. Nobody in the house was hurt but the Zeppelin went further east and seven people were killed during the one raid. In all, nearly 700 Londoners were killed by air raids in the First World War. You can read more about it in Zeppelin Nights by Jerry White or check out some contemporary accounts in our newspaper archives with the Illustrated London News being particularly interesting for photographs of the aftermath of raids.

June

Books by and about the Women's InstituteA happier First World War centenary is celebrated on 16 June with the centenary of the foundation of the Women’s Institute in the UK.  The movement (which started in Canada in 1897) first met here in Llanfairpwllgwyngyll and its original aim was to get women involved in growing and preserving food in wartime. By the end of 1919 there were 1405 women’s institutes across the country. They are currently enjoying a resurgance and do rather more than make cakes, though it seems to be compulsory to use the phrase ‘jam and Jerusalem’ in every article about them.

They now campaign on many issues, including Love Your Libraries. You can read up on their history in A Force to be Reckoned With by Jane Robinson and the splendidly named Jambusters: the story of the Women’s Institute in the second world war by Julie Summers.

July

Books about Ruth Ellis13 July will mark 60 years since Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Born in poverty in Rhyl, Ruth was determined to escape her background but her first attempt – a romance with a Canadian serviceman – left her an 18-year-old unmarried mother when her lover proved to have a wife and children back home. She did marry in 1950 but the relationship soon ended and Ruth was left to support her two children by the most lucrative work she could find – acting as a hostess in Mayfair nightclubs.

By 1955 she had two lovers – David Blakely, a hard-drinking racing car enthusiast and Desmond Cussen, a former bomber pilot whose family owned a successful chain of tobacconists. The relationship with Blakely was violent, with Ellis having a miscarriage after he punched her in the stomach, and the two men were jealous of each other. On Easter Day, 10 April 1955, Cussen gave Ellis a revolver, showed her how to use it and drove her to Hampstead Heath where she, high on drink and tranquillizers, shot and killed Blakely as he left a pub.

There was no real doubt of the outcome of the trial – Ellis didn’t mention Cussen’s involvement to her solicitor until the day before her exection. The jury took only 20 minutes to convict her and she was sentenced to hang. There was considerable interest in her case with a petition for clemency signed by more than 50,000 people. You can follow the debate in our newspaper archives and there are several biographies of Ellis available in Westminster Libraries

August

Guinness World Records (Guinness Book of Records)A less tragic event in 1955 was the publication on 27 August  of the first edition of the Guinness Book of Records (now known as Guinness World Records). According to publishing legend, Hugh Beaver, the managing director of Guinness Breweries, wanted to settle an argument about which was the fastest game bird, the golden plover or the red grouse, but couldn’t find an appropriate reference book to answer the question.

The runner Christopher Chataway, who worked for Guinness, recommended the twins Norris and Ross McWhirter who, as well as being sports journalists themselves (Norris was the time-keeper when Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile) ran an agency which provided facts and figures to Fleet Street. They were commissioned to write the Guinness Book of Records and it became an instant hit with the annual revisions appearing in time for Christmas. The twins made regular appearance on the BBC children’s programme Record Breakers which ran for 276 episodes between 1972 and 2001 and which was presented for most of that time by Roy Castle. Readers of a certain age are probably humming the theme tune to themselves right now…

You can borrow the latest edition of the  book  from your local library – current random records include the Wolf of Wall Street winning the prize for the most swearing in one film with an average of 3.81 expletives per minute and Daniel Fleming of Cleethorpes holding the world record for greatest number of playable bagpipes (105). Oh, and the fastest game bird in Europe? It’s the plover.

September

ThunderbirdsScott, John, Virgil, Alan, Gordon – also unforgettable to people of a certain age – are the five Tracy brothers, who, with their father Jeff, formed International Rescue, a top secret organisation dedicated to saving lives whose adventures were chronicled in Thunderbirds, first broadcast on 30 September 1965. The series used puppetry combined with scale-model special effects in a technique that producer Gerry Anderson called Supermarionation.

The show was an instant hit and characters such as Lady Penelope and her annoyingly nasal butler Parker became household names. The Tracy brothers were named after the Mercury Seven astronauts, while the puppets were modelled on leading actors such as Sean Connery and Charlton Heston. You can read more about Thunderbirds and other Anderson series such as Captain Scarlet and Stingray in Supermarionation Classics and don’t forget that the original series as well as its cinema incarnations are available on DVD.

October

AgincourtOctober sees the 600th anniversary of one of the most celebrated battles in English history, Agincourt. Made famous by Shakespeare in Henry V, the battle, on St Crispins Day 1415, is well documented with several contemporary accounts surviving. While the English were heavily outnumbered, the use of the longbow against the French soldiers seems to have been a decisive fact in the English victory. Shakespeare’s play is still a favourite with theatre producers and there have been two notable cinema films – both great – one with Laurence Olivier, made during WW2, and more recently with Kenneth Branagh.

November

1940s cinema will be celebrated again, as 26 November sees the 70th anniversary of the release of Brief Encounter, the beloved romantic tragedy  based on Noel Coward’s Still Life. The film tells the simple story of Laura Jesson (played by Celia Johnson), a middle class housewife in a rather dull marriage who meets doctor Alec Harvey in a railway station restaurant and finds that what starts out as a casual chat soon develops into an intensely emotional relationship. There have been other versions of the original play – one with Jane Asher and John Alderton plus Joan Collins as a slightly unlikely tea-shop manageress was broadcast by the BBC in 1991 and there was a simply terrible film version with Sophia Loren and Richard Burton – but none have matched the simple beauty of the original. that said, do check out Victoria Wood’s splendid parody (“I’ve a tin of orange pekoe I keep for the middle classes”):

December

Finally on 28 December 2015 we will have an anniversary that is central to the life of our city as we mark 950 years since the consecration of Westminster Abbey in 1065.

Westminster AbbeyIt was founded by Edward the Confessor (the only English king to be canonised), who died on 5 January 1066, only a week after the consecration. It was the first church in England built in the Norman Romanesque style and has been the traditional site for coronations ever since William the Conqueror. However, only a few arches and columns survive of Edward’s church – the current one dates from the thirteenth century and the reign of Henry III.

If you want to know what St Peter’s Abbey, as it was originally known, used to look like, you’ll have to check out the Bayeux Tapestry which features its only known picture. For more about the Abbey, check out some of the many books about it and of course, it’s there to visit too!


These are just some of the anniversaries that will be commemorated next year – no doubt we’ll also be hearing about the first ascent of the Matterhorn (14 July 1865), the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815), VE Day (8 May 1945) and as if that wasn’t enough… there’s another three years of the Great War centenary to work through!

[Nicky]