The scary automatic door, the alarming burglar alarm, the spooky coal mine, the thump of the iron weights, the disappearing golden ball. Does anyone remember the Children’s Gallery at the Science Museum in London?

exhibition road, london underground, the science museum, south kensington

On the left, the Science Museum in Exhibition Road, South Kensington, which opened in 1928 replacing buildings from the 1860s. On the right, an Underground poster from 1928.

From 1931 when the gallery was first opened up until 1993 when it closed, children visiting the museum in South Kensington would turn left in the main entrance hall and go down the stairs to the Children’s Gallery in the basement.

Families would usually have got to the museum by going along the pedestrian subway – first opened in 1885 – from the Tube station in ‘South Ken’.

In the basement, there was a long thin rectangular room, which I recall from the 1950s was fairly dimly-lit, where children were free to play with working models that had buttons to press, handles to turn, and levers to pull. There were also historical dioramas and models showing the development of science and technology throughout history. I thought some of these were dull compared with what we would now call ‘hands-on’ exhibits.

 children’s gallery, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

Going by this photo of the Children’s Gallery taken when it opened in December 1931, there doesn’t seem to be much by way of ‘hands on’ exhibits, but it was innovatory at the time. A printed guide to the gallery from 1935 states ‘if there is anything you want to know about the exhibits ask one of the Attendants in uniform’ © Science Museum/SSPL

Whilst the aim of the gallery was to ‘inform and instruct’ children on the social, material, and even moral impact of science and technology on society, surveys carried out in the 1950s revealed that this approach was more or less lost on the children. There was a lot of curiosity and fascination about the many exhibits, but the kids were also having fun.

Consequently, when the Children’s Gallery was revamped in 1969, the historical perspective was to some extent abandoned in favour of combining instruction with pleasure in order to make the children feel that ‘science is a wonderful thing’.

The Children’s Gallery was replaced in 1986 by Launchpad, an ambitious interactive gallery for young people, which moved to the top floor of the museum in 2007. Launchpad itself was replaced in 2016 by Wonderlab, an interactive science gallery with 50 exhibits in seven zones that was 60 percent larger than Launchpad, though an admission fee was also introduced reflecting the £6m cost (school groups are free).

A Selection of the Exhibits

Here are some of the exhibits from the Children’s Gallery that I remember from the 1950s through to the 1980s. I would have liked to include others but photographs of the gallery are thin on the ground. At the end of this post are some memorable exhibits from elsewhere in the Science Museum.

children’s gallery, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

The noisiest area of the gallery was the one devoted to Lifting. Ropes that went around pullies could be pulled to lift heavy iron weights. The fewer pullies, the more difficult it was to lift the weights, and there was at least one that I couldn’t lift. There were also jacks where weights were lifted by turning a handle. These photos seem to be from the 1940s or 50s © Science Museum/SSPL

chappe semaphore, children’s gallery, diorama, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

There were many dioramas (three-dimensional models in glass showcases) on the development of transport (photo left), communications (photo centre), and lighting through the ages. Some of these had buttons and levers such as the model of the Chappe Semaphore (the first practical telecommunications system of the industrial age invented in 1792) the top of which can be seen in the middle of the centre photo. On the right, is a display behind glass panels of vacuum experiments. Again, these photos seem to be from the 1940s or 50s © Science Museum/SSPL

automatic door, children’s gallery, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

The information stand on the left says ‘Automatic Door 1933. This automatic door has been in almost constant use since it was installed in 1933. At the time most people had never seen an automatic door, and the exhibit became a star attraction in the Museum’s old Children’s Gallery. The door’s 13 ½ millionth opening in 1967 was celebrated when the photograph below was taken’ © Science Museum

There were two exhibits that could be a little scary to a young child. The automatically opening door and the burglar alarm.

With the door, you queued up, and when it was your turn you walked towards the closed red door. You’d break a beam of light shining on a photoelectric cell and the door would swing open abruptly. If you were very young, you didn’t know about the beam, and it was a bit spooky. I wanted to be trapped by the door or something. It was very popular with kids who queued up again and again to go through the door.

The door is still on display, as in the photo on the right, in the Secret Life of the Home gallery in the basement of the museum.

Nearby, there was mock safe in the wall. The idea was to creep as close as you could towards the safe from a line on the floor of the gallery. You would break an infra-red beam, and the word Burglar, in red lighting, which was fixed to the wall near to the safe, would light up with a buzzing sound. Well that’s how I remember it, and I haven’t a photo of the burglar alarm to confirm this.

Other working exhibits that I can remember – though there are no photographs – was the eclipse of the sun by the moon, a diorama of an Archimedean screw being used for irrigation, a Watt engine and hammer, a model of an electric passenger lift, a submarine periscope (the sight poked out somewhere in the ground floor above, so that’s what you saw), and an automatic telephone number selector.

Two smaller working exhibits attracted quite a bit of attention. A Van de Graaf generator from 1929, used to accumulate an electric charge, and a Wimshurt machine from the 1880s, used to generate high voltages. I can’t recall what happened when these machines were demonstrated, but there were machines like this in the X-rated Frankenstein films of the 50s.

children’s gallery, disappearing golden ball, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

The disappearing golden ball, which was introduced in 1958, was intended to demonstrate the capacity effect, though I can’t find out what this is. © Science Museum

Another popular exhibit was the ‘disappearing golden ball’. The ball was in the middle of a raised circular table 5′ or so wide at the bottom of the stairs down to the Children’s Gallery. When you leant out to grab the golden ball, it would disappear with a click or clunk into a small socket. No matter how quick you were, you couldn’t get hold of it. I think the ball’s movement may have been activated by a motion sensor in the ceiling above the table.

The ball is still on display in the Secret Life of the Home gallery.

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It’s been a while since my last post but something I’ve been working on has turned out to be a much bigger task than expected. In the meantime, a walking trip to the Eden Valley in the north of England last June with outdoors mate Patrick had many highlights.

drybeck hallThe fertile Eden Valley lies between the Lake District in the west and the northern Pennines in the east. We stayed at Drybeck Hall in the middle of farming country west of Appleby-in-Westmorland. It’s a Grade 2* farmhouse built in 1679 when Charles II was monarch and fighting with Parliament. Drybeck Hall lies in the eastern half of now defunct Westmorland, a sparsely inhabited historic county that has its origins in the 12th century, and which was absorbed into Cumbria in 1974.

We did three circular walks. There’s no detailed instructions but a small map of each walk (click on it to zoom) is included to give you a rough idea of the route.

Day One – Great Rundale Tarn & High Cup Nick

great rundale tarn & high cup nick walk map

The starting point of this clockwise walk was the village of Dufton nestling below the western edge of the Pennines, three miles north of Appleby. The 268-mile long Pennine Way passes through this attractive village which dates from the 14th century. With a youth hostel and several campsites, it’s a popular stopping off point for walkers. From here the Pennine Way goes north to Cross Fell and Alston, and east in a dog-leg to Teesdale. Dufton was a centre for lead mining, and the Quaker-owned London Lead Company which mined here between 1821 and 1873, provided housing, a school, a library and installed piped water. Before setting out we had tea at the Post Box Pantry in the village.

barytes, lead drift mine, dufton fell, dufton pike, rundale beck, threlkeld side

It’s a slow climb up the track towards Dufton Fell, past cone-like Dufton Pike, alongside Rundale Beck, and through the steep limestone walls of Threlkeld Side. All around were the remains of the lead miner’s drift mines, their smelting kilns, spillways, and spoil hummocks. Barytes (barium sulphate, a source of the metal barium) was also mined here in the late 1800s, and the dumps were worked for minerals in the 1980s.

great rundale tarn, tarn sike

Once onto the moors, there was a weather-beaten stone-built ‘shooting box’ at 2,224 feet, the highest point on our walk. It offers little relief from the wind for our short tea break, though the sun is out. Heading east along a stream bed we skirt Great Rundale Tarn, and follow its outlet, Tarn Sike, for several miles.

maize beck, maizebeck scar, tarn sike,

Many tributaries join the stream from the north. The path is hard to find and the stream has to be criss-crossed repeatedly. In wet weather the moor around Tarn Sike would be a soggy peaty mess. I don’t think we saw anybody, it was a remote spot. Tarn Sike turns south-east and eventually joins Maize Beck which becomes an unexpected trench-like gorge, Maizebeck Scar.

After a short distance Maize Beck turns again and flows north-east for four miles before joining the River Tees, which eventually flows into the North Sea, near to Cauldron Snout. The source of the Tees is to the north on Cross Fell, the highest point in the Pennines. But less than 500 yards away on High Cup Plain, a stream flows in the opposite direction over High Cup Nick and down to the River Eden, which flows into the Solway Firth on the west coast. High Cup Plain is a watershed between the east and west of England.

A sturdy all-weather bridge spans the scar, and an indistinct path crosses High Cup Plain towards High Cup Nick to the south-west. The map indicates there are ‘areas of shake holes’ on the plain. These are steep-sided, often conical, depressions in the ground formed through the collapse of the soil into rain-eroded cavities in the underlying limestone. The smaller ones are overgrown and hard to spot so we take care.

hadrian’s wall, great whin sill, high cup nick, high cup gill, u-shaped valley

High Cup Nick is a notch at the apex of the spectacular U-shaped glaciated valley of High Cup Gill. The horseshoe-shaped rim around the top end of the valley is formed of erosion resistant grey-blue crags of dolerite that are part of the Great Whin Sill. The sill was a tabular intrusion of igneous rock up to 70 metres thick that occurred across much of northern England some 295 million years ago. Hadrian’s Wall was built on exposures of the Great Whin Sill. At High Cup Nick the sill is exposed to dramatic effect, the dolerite having formed columns as the molten rock cooled and shrank.

The way back to Dufton is along the northern escarpment of the steeply sided valley of High Cup Gill. The track, called Narrow Gate, is on the Pennine Way, and it was indeed quite narrow in parts so again care was needed. Lower down, the well-worn and wide path passes through endless fields, but it is hard going. The Stag Inn in Dufton, which overlooks the village green and which was built in 1703, is a welcome sight.

Our walk was 9.7 miles long, the total ascent was 2,210 feet, and it took us the best part of six hours. The walk was taken from the Cicerone Guide Walking in Cumbria’s Eden Valley.

Day Two – Smardale Gillcrosby garrett

Five miles south-east cross-country from Drybeck Hall is the village of Crosby Garrett, the starting point of this anti-clockwise walk. An imposing railway viaduct passes over the southern edges of the village. I later discover that this is the renowned Settle to Carlisle railway, that the viaduct is 55 feet high, and that the village’s railway station closed in 1952.

smardale gill walk map

It’s raining as we leave the village under the viaduct on a short no-through-road heading south. After five minutes we leave the track and start a gradual climb across Crosby Garrett Fell. The directions for the walk quotes paths becoming fainter, gullies disappearing, and the need to keep going in the same direction over tussocky ground.

Unfortunately a mist descended and we lost whatever path we were supposed to be on. When the mist eventually lifted there was a great view of the Howgill Fells to the south, but it took some guesswork to locate where we were on the southern flanks of the fell. We unexpectedly cross over Wainwright’s 190-mile Coast to Coast Walk on a part of the fell called Begin Hill.

We found a path that took us off the fells and down to a new wooden gate at Severalls Gill. Crossing the footpath east-west was the cutting of a dismantled railway (photo below left). The rain eased a little and we had a damp but welcome tea break. Old railways make for easy and usually interesting walking so we set off eastwards full of expectation.

ravenstonedale, scandal beck, smardale bridge, wainwright coast to coast

The valley formed by Scandal Beck comes in from the south, and down below from the railway track, a packhorse bridge, Smardale Bridge (photo right) crossed the stream. What was striking was that this 18th century bridge (or 15th century depending on your source) just carried a bridleway; the nearest road is a mile away in Ravenstonedale. It was as if nothing had changed in a few hundred years. Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk also crosses over this bridge and heads up east away from the valley to Kirkby Stephen.

A county road once crossed this bridge and there was once an inn close-by, the Scotch Ale House, for drovers bringing their livestock south from Scotland to markets in England. It is reputed that at the time of the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions, plotters supporting the Stuarts against the Hanoverians met at the ale house. On the surrounding hillsides are the remains of Romano-British settlements, medieval strip lynchets, man-made rabbit warrens called pillow mounds (known locally as Giant’s Graves), as well as disused quarries.

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ickworth, river linnet, chedburgh, bury st edmunds, busted canal bank

This is near the spot that Zoe Ward refers to. The River Linnet is not much more than a stream for most of its seven mile course from Chedburgh to the town of Bury St Edmunds, where it joins the River Lark.

Zoë Ward lived almost all her life in Horringer near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. She was one of two daughters born in the first decade of the 1900s to the village postmaster, Charles Leech, and his wife Eleanor, and she was the village headmistress for many years. In her book Curtsy to a Lady (1985), Zoë Ward says that the Ickworth estate was like their playground. She recalls that the ‘busted canal bank’ was one of many favourite places for their games. ‘When there was any water in the stream – or, to give it its proper name, the River Linnet – we used to paddle there’. The story of the busted canal bank goes back to the start of the 19th century.

In 1808 the Little Saxham estate to the west of Ickworth was added to the estate as a result of an agreement between the then 5th Earl of Bristol, Frederick Hervey, owner of Ickworth, who had inherited the nearby Rushbrooke estate, and Robert Rushbrooke, the owner of Little Saxham, to exchange the two estates. The parish boundary between Little Saxham and Ickworth lay along the River Linnet for just under a mile, and a public road, the Chevington Way also ran along the boundary. This was a well used route at the time. It went from Chevington rectory past Chevington Lodge and Hall Farm, through the Iron Gates into Ickworth Park, down to the River Linnet and alongside it as far as Westley Bottom, and then onto Bury St Edmunds. It is said that the Abbots at Bury would use it to go to their manor at Chevington in the summer, but more importantly it would have been used by all kinds of people going to and from Bury St Edmunds, especially to sell corn, dairy produce and livestock at the ancient market which dates back to 630AD.

So in acquiring the Little Saxham estate, the 5th Earl of Bristol found himself with the Chevington Way, a public road, running right through his private land. The Chevington Way was joined by two other roads. One from Chedburgh joined just outside the estate boundary at Chevington Iron Gates, and the other, Hargrave Lane, met the Chevington Way further down the Linnet valley towards Bury. At best, the surface of these roads, which were the responsibility of the parish, would have been of broken stone, but they would have been bumpy, rutted and full of pot-holes. In winter they could be impassable for carriages or carts.

It was important to the Herveys as owners of a huge country estate, that they owned all they could see. This also required that they would not encounter anyone from the agricultural and labouring classes on the estate, indeed no one that they did not know, other than their own workers. Their presence on the Chevington Way would have been an inconvenience, an intrusion, though there is no written record of this being the reason for what the 5th Earl did next.

ickworth, river linnet, chevington way, hargrave way

The map shows the Chevington Way in red, and the New Road in blue. The gap in the dots on the blue route is where it is likely that a road already existed, part of the ancient Hargrave Way.

In 1814, the 5th Earl obtained an Act of Parliament to close off the road on condition that it was replaced by an alternative route. He had made a new road skirting the Ickworth estate, costing £2,000, which went from near Chevington Rectory past Chevington Lodge to Little Saxham, where it picked up the route into Bury via the Westley Road.

However, people were used to the shorter road, the ‘Cheventon Way’ as it was then called, and continued to use it in spite of notices and warnings. Something had to be done, so the Earl announced that he was going to have an ornamental lake made across part of the old road. In 1823 work was started on building an earth dam east-west across the valley of the River Linnet from the edge of the new Pleasure Grounds of Ickworth Lodge on the east side, and from Dairy Wood on the west side. Eventually the rising waters formed a 15 acre lake that drowned the Chevington Way and cut off the access through the park.

Constructing the dam took a lot of labour. This was recorded in the Ickworth Labour account book for 1818-27 with entries under the heading ‘New Canal Account’. In May 1823, there is an entry of 98 workmen’s days for ‘making head for trial to intended Canal’. The main work on the Canal seems to have done in the spring and summer of 1824. From April to July that year, over 100 days work was carried out each week. One of the last entries is for 54 days of ‘levelling’ in September 1825. The total cost of the work was £500. Material to construct the dam likely came from two chalk pits, one on each side of the valley, and which can still be found today hidden in the woods.

Around 1823, the 1st Earl also cut off the road from Chedburgh where it met the Chevington Way on the other side of the Iron Gates, by building a pair of cottages across it. Horsepool Lodge, now derelict, was also built beside Hargrave Lane on the edge of Horsepool Wood, and gates were put up across the lane presumably with the same intention of stopping people using the lane to go down to the Chevington Way.

The new lake first appears on C & J Greenwood’s map of 1825 (detail from map below left). The new Pleasure Grounds created a bulge of woodland towards the high water mark of the lake, and the New Canal, or Ickworth Park Lake, as it came to be known, dominated the west side of the Park (detail from Richard Payne’s 1850 Tithe Map below centre).

ickworth, river linnet, c & j greenwood 1825, richard payne 1850, ickworth new canal, ickworth park lake

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Back in 1962, Dixon of Dock Green had been a regular staple police programme on Saturday night television for nine years. In it PC George Dixon, played by Jack Warner portrayed the archetypal local bobby. But the series was criticised for being too cosy, predictable, and unrealistic. Then along came a new police drama with gritty realistic stories that changed all that, a BBC series that ran for 801 episodes, Z-Cars.

bbc, z-cars,colin welland, joseph brady, brian blessed, james ellis, john slaterThe series was located in the fictional town of Newtown based on Kirkby in Lancashire (later Merseyside), and the name Z-Cars relates to an imaginary Z Division of the local constabulary. The two patrol cars that featured in the programme were Z Victor 1 and Z Victor 2 and their call sign into the control centre was ‘Z Victor 1 (or 2) to BD’, BD being the code in Lancashire for the radio controller.

The series was not named after the Ford Zephyr cars used in the programme, though the Zephyr was used as a standard patrol car by the Lancashire Constabulary.

The theme tune to Z Cars was based on an old Liverpool sea shanty, Johnny Todd, which you can listen to here. . Compare this with the theme to the TV programme here  The theme was later adopted by Everton Football Club as its official anthem.

Of the 801 episodes that were broadcast between January 1962 and September 1978, only about 40% of them have survived. The original series was one of the last British television dramas to be screened as a live production. The episodes up to 1970 were made in black and white. There is more information about the series here.

When the first run ended in 1965, two of the detectives Det Chief Insp Barlow, played by Stratford Johns, and Det Sgt Watt, played by Frank Windsor, were spun into a separate series Softly, Softly.

But the most remarkable fact about the series was the number of actors that appeared in the series. It became a right of passage for budding actors, many of whom became household names and well-known actors. Around 1,400 actors appeared over the 16 years that the series was broadcast (there were 1467 characters in total).

Here are the names of some of the actors, together with photos of a few of them that you may recognise.

More than 100 Episodes (13 actors)

James Ellis Sgt Lynch 627 episodes, 1962-1978
John Slater Det Sgt Stone 421 episodes, 1967-1974
Douglas Fielding PC Quilley 340 episodes, 1969-1978
Bernard Holley PC Newcombe 277 episodes, 1967-1971
Ian Cullen PC Skinner 220 episodes, 1969-1975
Derek Waring Det Insp Goss 216 episodes, 1969-1973
Joseph Brady PC Weir 178 episodes, 1962-1978
Jennie Goossens BD Girl 146 episodes, 1967-1971
Paul Angelis PC Bannerman 130 episodes, 1967-1969
Frank Windsor Det Sgt Watt 129 episodes, 1962-1978
Stratford Johns Det Chief Insp Barlow 126 episodes, 1962-1965
Brian Blessed PC Smith 115 episodes, 1962-1978
Robert Keegan Sgt Blackitt 109 episodes, 1962-1965
arthur lowe, bernard hepton, brian blessed, brian wilde, christopher timothy, z-cars

Arthur Lowe, Bernard Hepton, Brian Blessed, Brian Wilde, & Christopher Timothy

25 to 99 Episodes (29 actors)

Colin Welland PC Graham 88 episodes, 1962-1978
David Daker PC Culshaw 84 episodes, 1967-1977
Terence Edmond PC Sweet 78 episodes, 1962-1964
Stephen Yardley PC May 68 episodes, 1965-1978
John Woodvine Det Insp Witty 64 episodes, 1963-1969
Allan O’Keefe PC Render 63 episodes, 1971-1978
Ron Davies PC Roach 60 episodes, 1962-1969
John Collin Det Sgt Haggar 57 episodes, 1962-1978
Geoffrey Whitehead PC Baker 51 episodes, 1964-1975
Pauline Taylor WPC Parkin 50 episodes, 1967-1971
John Swindells PC Bowman 45 episodes, 1965-1973
Joss Ackland Det Insp Todd 42 episodes, 1964-1968
Pat Gorman PC Knowles 41 episodes, 1967-1978
Michael Forrest Det Con Hicks 39 episodes, 1962-1970
Jack Carr PC Covill 39 episodes, 1971-1972
Constance Carling WPC 38 episodes, 1969-1978
Jeremy Kemp PC Steele 35 episodes, 1962-1978
John Barrie Det Insp Hudson 34 episodes, 1962-1968
Barry Lowe PC Horrocks 33 episodes, 1964-1977
Leonard Williams Sgt Twentyman 31 episodes, 1962
Sebastian Breaks PC Tate 30 episodes, 1967-1970
Geoffrey Hayes Det Con Scatliff 29 episodes, 1969-1974
John Wreford PC Jackson 29 episodes, 1967-1968
David Jackson Det Con Braithwaite 27 episodes, 1965-1978
Patrick Milner PC 26 episodes, 1964-1978
Ray Lonnen Det Insp Moffat 27 episodes, 1970-1977
Lynn Furlong WPC Stacey 25 episodes, 1962-1977
Brian Grellis Det Sgt Bowker 25 episodes, 1967-1978
Paul Stewart Sgt Chubb 25 episodes, 1974-1978
colin welland, davy jones, dudley foster, frank windsor, fulton mackay, z-cars

Colin Welland, Davy Jones, Dudley Foster, Frank Windsor & Fulton Mackay

24 to 10 Episodes (12 actors)

Virginia Stride Dudley Foster Harry Towb
Stephanie Turner John Challis Ronald Leigh-Hunt
Donald Gee Kate Allitt Alethea Charlton
Lynn Farleigh Leslie Sands Barry Keegan
geoffrey palmer, george sewell, glenda jackson, james ellis, john laurie, z-cars

Geoffrey Palmer, George Sewell, Glenda Jackson, James Ellis & John Laurie

Five to Nine Episodes (25 actors)

Diana Coupland Windsor Davies Dudley Sutton
Frederick Jaeger Michael Balfour Susan Jameson
George Sewell Claire Nielson Cyril Shaps
Nicholas Smith Jo Rowbottom Fulton Mackay
Bernard Kay Reginald Marsh John Nettleton
Jack Smethurst William Gaunt Sydney Tafler
Leonard Rossiter Bryan Pringle Bernard Hepton
Garfield Morgan Leslie Dwyer
John Stratton Lynda La Plante
john thaw, judi dench, kate o'mara, leonard rossiter, lesley judd, z-cars

John Thaw, Judi Dench, Kate O’Mara, Leonard Rossiter & Lesley Judd

Three or Four Episodes (46 actors)

Sam Kydd Lynda Bellingham Colette O’Neil
Glyn Houston Anthony Valentine Kenneth Cope
Trevor Bannister Davy Jones William Lucas
Norman Rossington Judy Parfitt Richard Pearson
Bernard Archard Yootha Joyce Brian Cant
John Thaw Angela Douglas Luan Peters
Patrick Troughton Ray Brooks Gillian Raine
Sheila White Dermot Kelly Jack Wild
Kate O’Mara Geoffrey Bayldon Liz Gebhardt
Jon Finch Hylda Baker Paul Darrow
Edward Judd Nerys Hughes Paula Wilcox
Anne Stallybrass John Sharp Patricia Brake
George Baker Brian Wilde Elisabeth Sladen
Philip Madoc Petra Markham Philip Jackson
Sharon Duce Peter Purves
Anita Carey Godfrey Quigley
lynda bellingham, martin shaw, mollie sugden, patsy kensit, paul eddington, z-cars

Lynda Bellingham, Martin Shaw, Mollie Sugden, Patsy Kensit & Paul Eddington

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william le queux, german spy system, spy novelist

By 1900 William Le Queux had already written over 20 spy and war pot-boilers spurring invasion fears and infiltration by Kaiser Wilhelm’s agents. When this book was published in 1915, Le Queux had asked for police protection from German agents but the authorities declined. He was ‘not a person to be taken seriously’.

Modern British spy fiction dates from the beginning of the 20th century as an expression of the anxieties of international rivalries. The British took most readily to spy fiction and it is British writers which have received most critical attention and acclaim. Spy stories provide a window into the shadowy world of espionage and clandestine operations for readers who have been denied knowledge of the activities of British Intelligence through official silence, gagging and cover-ups. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many writers of British spy novels were themselves employed by Britain’s intelligence services and consequently brought a supposed authenticity to their stories. One such writer has even invented a new vocabulary to describe the tradecraft of the spy and in doing so has made it seem more credible.

The Birth of the Spy Novel 

The earliest example of the espionage novel was The Spy (1821) by the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper. The action takes place during the American Revolution with the forerunner of the spy, Harvey Birch, peddler and patriot, weather-beaten, canny, mysterious, prowling about on his subtle errands, pursued by friend and foe, and finally driven to his destiny, which at once both destroys and honours him.

The Dreyfus affair in France in which a young artillery officer was falsely convicted of treason in 1895 and sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, dominated and divided French politics. Though Dreyfus was eventually exonerated in 1906, the details reported by the world press in the intervening years with tales of penetration agents of Imperial Germany betraying the secrets of the General Staff of the French Army, and French counter-intelligence agents sending a charwoman to rifle the waste papers baskets of the German Embassy in Paris, contributed much to public interest in espionage and inspired the writers of spy fiction. This extraordinary miscarriage of justice was the basis for An Officer and A Spy (2014) by Robert Harris.

Early British Spy Novelists

joseph conrad, secret agent, adolf verloc, greenwich observatory, spy novelist

Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel set in 1886, has indolent Adolf Verloc working as a spy for an unnamed country (presumably Russia). He has to redeem himself as a agent provocateur by blowing up Greenwich Observatory.

The major themes of spying in the lead-up to the First World War were the continuing rivalry between the European colonial powers for control of Asia, the growing threat of conflict in Europe, the domestic threat of revolutionaries and anarchists, and historical romance.

One of the first novels by a British writer to introduce intrigue and rivalry between powerful countries was Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901), in which Kim, the orphan son of an Irish soldier, journeys across India against the backdrop of The Great Game, the political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia in the mid 1880s. The ‘spy novel’ was defined in The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Robert Erskine Childers, in which amateur spies discover a German plan to invade Britain. Even Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes became involved as spyhunter in The Adventure of the Second Stain (1904). The Anglo-French journalist and writer William Le Queux capitalised on invasion fears in The Invasion of 1910 (1906), one of his many pulp-fiction spy stories that had been published going back to 1894. The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad examined the psychology and ideology that motivated the members of a revolutionary cell who were determined to provoke revolution in Britain. G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) was a thriller based on the infiltration of an anarchist organisation by detectives; but it was also a vehicle for exploring society’s power structures.

During the First World War 

john buchan, thirty nine steps, richard hannay, spy novelist

John Buchan’s novel was written in 1914 before the outbreak of the First World War. The hero Richard Hannay bumps into a freelance spy, who is then murdered, and he has to go on the run from the police. He is pitted against German spies and the Black Stone group who are fomenting war in Europe.

During the War, John Buchan, who had worked for the British War Propaganda Bureau, became the pre-eminent British spy novelist. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), an archetypal English spy thriller, was the first of five novels that featured Scotsman Richard Hannay, an all-action hero with a stiff upper lip and a miraculous knack for getting himself out of sticky situations. In the novel which was set just before the outbreak of war in 1914, Hannay discovers a plot by German spies to steal British naval intelligence, but is forced to go on the run to Scotland to escape the police who suspect him of murder. At the end of the novel, the spies are waiting in a house in Kent above a private beach where a yacht is waiting until high tide to take the spies back to Germany. The path down to the beach has 39 steps. Buchan described his novel as a ‘shocker’, an adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened.

The Inter War Period

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the spy story was often concerned with combating the ‘Red Menace’, which was perceived as another ‘clash of civilizations’. Mysterious characters who threatened anarchy and who sought to overthrow governments were common in these stories. In 1922, Agatha Christie’s second detective novel, The Secret Adversary introduces the characters of Tommy and Tuppence, a duo of likeable upper-class detectives, who land themselves in all sorts of dangerous situations. They are employed by the British Government to locate a secret treaty signed before the war which if revealed could lead to a Bolshevik coup. The pair has to find out the identity of Mr Brown, the Bolshevik’s shady and elusive puppet-master.

Spy fiction was dominated by British authors, often former intelligence officers and agents writing from inside the trade. In his collection of short stories Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1928), W Somerset Maugham portrayed spying in the First World War. It is said that he based Ashenden on himself and on his experiences working for the intelligence services in the First World War. The Mystery of Tunnel 51 (1928) the first of 24 spy and mystery novels by Alexander Wilson conveyed an uncanny portrait of the first head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the original ‘C’, the initial that is still used as a signature by the head of MI6. Though there is no evidence that Wilson worked for the intelligence services in the First World War, Wilson led a mysterious and secret life. There were suspicions that he was involved in shady diplomacy in India in the 1930s, and he did work briefly for MI6 in the Second World War until he was dismissed because he faked a burglary in his London flat and because he was in trouble with the police.

compton mackenzie, water on the brain, spy novelist

Written in 1934, Water On The Brain was an unkind satire on the inadequacies of the British secret services. In a plot of Byzantine complexity British agent Major Arthur Blenkinsop is sent to the fictitious country of Mendacia. The novel was Mackenzie’s revenge for his having being prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act the year before.

Water on the Brain (1933) by Compton Mackenzie, best known for his comic novels set in Scotland, Whisky Galore and The Monarch of the Glen, was the first successful spy novel satire. Mackenzie worked for British intelligence in the Eastern Mediterranean during the First World War, and later published four books on his experiences. Mackenzie was prosecuted in 1932 for quoting from supposedly secret documents but the trial ended with him being fined £100.

The Dark Frontier (1936) by Eric Ambler was the first of six novels that he wrote  in the years leading up to the second world war, which brought a new realism to spy fiction. His tales of ordinary men and (sometimes) women caught up in the machinations of malign international corporations, or of stateless refugees facing an uncertain future in a volatile and unwelcoming Europe, revitalised the British thriller, and rescued the genre from third-rate imitators of John Buchan. Above Suspicion (1939) by Helen MacInnes about an anti-Nazi husband and wife spy team, was the first of many fast-paced spy novels occurring against contemporary historical backgrounds.

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festival of britain, abram games, festival emblem, festival star

A Festival of Britain poster designed by Abram Games, who also designed the festival emblem in the centre, the Festival Star.

On 3 May 1951, the Festival of Britain was opened by King George VI. It was conceived by the Labour Government, led by Clement Attlee, as ‘a tonic for the nation’, a cheerful, forward-looking event and a break from rationing, austerity and the brown landscape of a still bomb-scarred country. The heart of the Festival was constructed on a 27 acre area on the South Bank of the Thames in London between County Hall and Waterloo Bridge, that had remained untouched since being bombed in the war. But some not did see it in that light. Winston Churchill, Leader of the Opposition, was opposed to the Festival. He said it was all just ‘three-dimensional, socialist propaganda’ that squandered American financial aid. Churchill was to get his own back later.

The plan first mooted in 1947 was to celebrate the centennial of the Great Exhibition of 1851, but it was not to be another world fair. The festival was to focus entirely on Britain and its achievements. The Festival was to be funded chiefly by the government with a budget of £12 million. But there was a political dimension.

festival of britain, south bank, dome of discovery, royal festival hall, skylon, dan dare

On the South Bank site, there was to be a Dome of Discovery, the Royal Festival Concert Hall, numerous pavilions, and the iconic Skylon, a 296ft high Dan Dare-like needle that apparently floated above the ground.

Although the aim of the Festival was to promote British science, technology, industrial design, architecture and the arts, the Labour government, after five years in office following its landslide victory in 1945, was losing support. It was hoped that the Festival would give people a feeling of successful recovery from the war’s devastation. But again, many thought there were better ways of spending taxpayers’ money. There was still meat rationing and petrol shortages, and millions of homes needed re-building. Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor and impresario, described it as ‘a monumental piece of imbecility’.

However when the Festival  closed five months later on 30 September, eight and a half million paying visitors had come to the South Bank site, far more than predicted.

festival of britain, ronald searle, woolly smothers, herbert morrison

A pen and ink cartoon by Ronald Searle. Woolly Smothers MP says to the person in the ticket kiosk, who is obviously meant to be Herbert Morrison, the Labour minister responsible for the Festival of Britain.
‘And what’s more Sir – I still think it would be a waste of money if it weren’t such a success!’

The public enthusiasm and the support of the King and Queen for the festival resulted in the newspapers, which had been so hostile before the opening of the festival, now being supportive. King George could not attend as he was recovering from an operation. He died just over four months later, and his eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth, became queen. The final net cost of the Festival of £8m (about £227m today) was less than budgeted. The Festival was acclaimed as a ‘triumphant success’.

However in a general election just weeks after the closing of the Festival, Winston Churchill was returned to power as leader of a Conservative government. Churchill, who saw the Festival as a celebration of the achievements of the Labour Party and their vision for a new socialist Britain, promptly ordered the dismantling of the landmark Festival buildings on the South Bank, with the exception of the Festival Hall (now a Grade I listed building). Here is a British Pathé newsreel about the demolition in 1952. Watch out at the end when the commentator says all the latest equipment is being used and then shows a chap wielding a sledgehammer, and then for the man who appears to survive a potentially fatal fall when the girder he is cutting smashes to the ground. There was no sense of irony and the commentator treats the incident surprisingly light-heartedly.

skylon, vertical feature, festival of britain, dome of discovery

The futuristic-looking Skylon was the ‘Vertical Feature’ that was an abiding symbol of the Festival of Britain. It consisted of a steel latticework frame, pointed at both ends, clad in aluminium louvres, and supported on cables slung between three steel beams.

The film also shows the supporting girders of the Skylon being cut. It is said that once the cables were severed, the Skylon toppled over into the Thames. Although the metal was sold as scrap, there are unsubstantiated stories that remains of the Skylon still lie on the bed of the Thames or in the River Lea (like the Euston Arch).

The Festival site was cleared completely and remained so for ten years. Today the site is occupied by a park, Jubilee Gardens, which was created in 1977. You can read here more about the Festival, as well as the events held across the country. A short film Brief City about the South Bank Festival buildings was made by the Observer newspaper. Here are part one and part two. The commentary is very much of its time, and to me, fascinating. Watch out for the milkman in Downing Street in part one, around 7.30 minutes.

But two miles upstream from the South Bank in Battersea Park, on the opposite side of the Thames from Chelsea, a more frivolous exhibition had also been opened in 1951, the Festival Pleasure Gardens. This exhibition harked back to the English pleasure gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries elsewhere in London at Vauxhall, Ranelagh and Cremorne.

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Christmas Quiz 2016

christmas quiz 2016, eric ravilious, wet afternoonThis Christmas quiz, which you can print off below, only has an initial flurry of questions with a Christmas theme and there are picture clues for those whose festive brains are a little addled. It’s not about events of the past year, which I find rather dull. It’s more of a pub-type quiz to have a go at over the holiday with hopefully interesting questions, though on reflection there should have been some geography, history, science, or even maths questions. Next year perhaps.

It is not therefore the sort of impossible-to-answer general knowledge quiz like that set by King William’s College on the Isle of  Man that is featured each year in the The Guardian. Since 1905, pupils at the college have been required to take this test, and until 1999 it was compulsory. That said, the average score of the 300 pupils aged between 11 and 18 that take the test each year is just two, out of 180 questions!

radio times christmas edition, queens christmas message, royal yacht britannia

This is the cover of the Radio Times Christmas Number published on 22 December 1956 priced 3d (about 1 and a half pence). There were only two TV channels then, BBC and ITA. The BBC’s programmes on Christmas Day started at 11am with a ‘Family Service’ from a church in Coventry, followed at 3pm with the Queen’s Christmas message, live but sound only.
This was preceded by a three-minute message from the Duke of Edinburgh who was on the Royal Yacht somewhere in the Pacific, but who could only be heard ‘imperfectly’.

This is not surprising as who knows ‘during 1915, what yarn revealed the murderous activities of the Black Stone?’ (question 1.8 in the 2015 quiz, the 111th issue). Nor ‘where does a 20 second cycle operate from an octagonal tower? (question 4.7). One wonders what is the point of it? It certainly provides some kudos for the college and it exemplifies perhaps the thirst for knowledge for its own sake. There’s a term for this: autotelic. I did like however Q16.5. ‘What was Tom’s intended fate prior to his rescue from beneath the attic?’.  Answer: Roly-poly Pudding (Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers). For those who know Miss Potter’s books well, that’s not me, there is a give away in that this book has the alternative title of ….. The Roly Poly Pudding.

The answers to the two questions above are The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan, and North Foreland Lighthouse near Broadstairs in Kent. I’m surprised that the average score is as high as two.

As the King William’s College quiz is only published in the The Guardian on Christmas Eve you will have to wait until then. This year’s answers will be published in The Guardian in the New Year towards the end of January.

So, for a more relaxing and much less challenging quiz try my one: Christmas Quiz 2016 Questions. The quiz has 30 questions scoring a maximum of 38 points. Here are the answers: Christmas Quiz 2016 Answers. Any likes or comments would be welcome.

wallace and gromit, postage stamp, post box, christmas