Thursday, 22 August 2019

Passport Portraits of Yesteryear no. 39

Waiting for the frontier to re-open.
Continuing the series of passport portraits in my collection.
Peruse and wonder.
Madame Ouin is a 51 yr. old shopkeeper living in Rouen. She is French by marriage, having been born in Lerida, Spain, where a significant proportion of her relations still live. She is impatient to visit them but the Great War has been raging for four years now and neutral countries contiguous to France have closed their borders. 
Anticipating the end of hostilities, Mme Ouin obtains her French passport in August 1918. It is endorsed, 'valid from the opening of the frontiers.' By the 10th. October she is on the Franco-Spanish border at Cerbère 'awaiting the reopening of the border.' But the armistice will not be signed for another month yet so, on the 11th. October she renounces her attempt to reach Spain and takes the train back to the Gare St Lazare in Paris.
By the July of 1919, she is a widow and tries again to visit her family in Spain. She is accompanied by her three daughters, Constance, Valentine and Marguerite but the problem now is that the Spanish flu is coursing through Europe, killing thousands. She has to obtain a medical certificate for herself and her daughters to confirm that they are not carrying any contagious disease. They board their train at the Gare St Lazare and at last, on 1st August 1919, they cross into Spain.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Woodblock flooring in Derby streets.

Woodblock paving in Derby Market
Whilst walking around Derby recently in the company of my cousins we visited the market which is being renovated. They told me to look at the floor and identify the material used.

To their apparent surprise I immediately said, 'Woodblock paving'.

Woodblock paving in Derby Market

They were not to know that I possess several books on roadmaking dating from the 1900s onwards.

Such things interest me. 

What my books taught me was that the blocks were cut across the grain so that the wood fibres stood vertically. This ensured that the block carried the weight of traffic evenly. 
Advertisement for woodblock paving, 1922.

If the blocks had been cut along the grain then only the upper layer would be subjected to the abrasion and this would shorten the life of the paving.

The Derby floods of 1932

My mother lived in Derby as a child and I remember her telling me that in the terrible floods of 1932, the streets which had been laid with woodblock paving lifted and floated away.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Wash your silk stockings in Swarfega!

I was introduced to Swarfega industrial hand cleaner when, as a schoolboy, I worked in my holidays with steam powered traction engines. I discovered that handling carborundum paste, axle grease and gear oil provides ample opportunity to get one's hands dirty.

This was a real man's world and we teenagers espoused the dirt, the swearing and the drinking with varying degrees of success. The term 'street cred' had not been invented then but I suspect that this was what we were searching for.
'Just stick your hand in that tin of green jelly,' was the instruction and, hey presto, our hands would be cleaned.

I recently gave a talk in Belper, Derbyshire and was interested to discover that Swarfega was invented there. In 1941 a man called Williamson founded a company to manufacture a product for handwashing silk stockings. He called the company 'Deb Silkwear Protection Ltd.', the 'Deb' being an abbreviation of 'debutante'. His timing could have been better. In WW2 most silk production was turned over to manufacturing parachutes and then along came nylon stockings to displace the silk. Not to be discouraged he adapted the silk protection formula to produce an industrial hand cleaner for removing grease, oil and grit for use in the heavy engineering and motor industries. Swarfega was born.

Swarfega is still manufactured by Deb Ltd, in Derbyshire but just up the road in Denby, where the pottery comes from. I suppose that car mechanics can still wash their silk stockings in Swarfega should they so desire.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Passport Portraits of Yesteryear no. 38

STO – Working for the enemy.
Continuing the series of passport portraits in my collection.
Peruse and wonder.
Jean Pontet is a 29 yr. old Frenchman from Lyon. It is April 1943 and France has been occupied by the Germans for the last three years. By the armistice of June 1940, France was divided into an occupied zone in the north and an unoccupied zone in the south. When in 1943 the allies invaded North Africa the Germans responded by crossing the line southwards and occupying the remainder of France. A few weeks before this passport was issued, they cancelled the Demarcation Line.

The Germans wanted civilian manpower to run their factories. They had tried to recruit Frenchmen to this end, enticing them with the promise of greater food rations and high wages. They were not very successful in this endeavour and so introduced the Service du Travail Obligatoire – STO. It was a compulsory work force to be shipped off to work for the Germans. Jean Pontet was caught up in this. He was issued a gratis French passport by the new Etat Français endorsed  'this passport is issued for Germany.' It contained no written physical description of him, merely his photograph and a French visa allowing him to travel in and out until September 1945. He was sent to Linz in Austria where the Germans were assembling Tiger tanks. 
He does not look very enthusiastic on his photograph.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Dick Francis, the East India Company and Paignton

How do you put these three together? 
By staying at the Redcliffe Hotel in Paignton. 
On our second day, having a little time to explore this extraordinary hotel, I asked at the reception desk why the hotel had named a room 'The Dick Francis Suite'. I was astonished to learn that this famous novelist had stayed at the hotel for fifty seven consecutive years, usually in August. Even when he lived in the USA and later Grand Cayman, the Francis extended family would gather in Redcliffe Towers for their annual get together.

The Redcliffe Hotel, Paignton.
And then you look at the architecture and you begin to wonder – where did it come from? What were the inspirations? We are accustomed to the flamboyance of British Victorian seaside architecture... but this? A Maltese Cross or two, some seahorses, an Italianate style with Indian references. What a mixture. 
Redcliffe Towers

The hotel was originally built in 1856 as a private house, Redcliffe Towers, on a prominence overlooking Paignton in Devon. The designer and owner was a retired surveyor of the East India Company, Robert Smith, and the residence he erected reflected his employment and world travels. It was converted to a hotel nearly fifty years later.
For a full appreciation and explanation of this remarkable site I can do no better than refer you to the website East India Company at Home which will, I am sure, make you marvel. 

And for the full experience, go and stay in the hotel. The staff are attentive and friendly and the hotel has direct access to the sandy beach.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Fun at the Felixstowe Book Festival

A big thank you to the enthusiastic audience at my talk this morning. Meg and her team have organised another successful and alluring book festival and our room was full to overflowing. 

If you were unable to buy my books at the talk, you will not find them in the festival book shop but I am in the hotel until Monday morning and you may accost me at any time for a purchase, contact me on or even leave a message for me at the hotel reception desk.

Enjoy the rest of the festival!

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

A Grade One listed telescope?

Yes, the Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank 
near Manchester, is classified as a Grade One 
Listed Building.
Of course, in operation it can become a 
grade one listing building.

None of this sophistry seems  to bother the cows too much.