Monthly Archives: August 2009

Fred Dibnah MBE

Fred Dibnah MBE

Fred Dibnah MBE

Fred Dibnah really was one of life’s characters. Just an ordinary Northern bloke, by a strange quirk of fate he ended up a national treasure.

After finishing his national service in the Army in 1962, the native of Bolton became famous as a steeplejack. Although he became famous for demolishing buildings, usually factory chimneys, he also repaired them. The decline of Bolton’s cotton industry meant that there was a never-ending stream of chimneys needing felling. An admirer of the workmanship that had gone into their construction, Fred felled them the old-fashioned way. Eschewing dynamite, he cut into the chimney, propped it up with wood, and then burnt the wood away. He was also fascinated with all things Industrial, and not surprisingly his hero was Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Fred also became famous for his steam engines. Over time he built up a full-scale steam driven workshop in his back garden to work on his engines, a steam roller and a traction engine. He was so devoted to his engines that his first two wives ended up leaving him! In 2002 Fred even went as far as to sink a mine shaft in his back garden, with full pit head gear and incline railway.

After the real-life documentaries following his life, Fred also presented a number of fascinating series covering his love for Industry, Architecture, and steam. Diagnosed with cancer in 2001, Fred refused to receive chemotherapy so he could tour Britain in his newly restored Aveling and Porter Traction Engine, and collect his MBE from Buckingham Palace in style. He died in 2004, and his funeral was a real Victorian affair, even down to the steam engine carrying his coffin! Theres a statue of Fred in Bolton City Centre, and his back yard workshop is reportedly going to be turned into a working Heritage Centre. Lets hope so!

The steam world purists might belittle him at times, but what he had that the vast majority of them will never have was worth its weight in gold – charisma. Whats the use of knowledge if you can’t pass it on? He wasnt perfect – as his first two wives would no doubt testify – but who is? How many people are interested in industry, architecture, heritage…. just from watching Fred? How many people out there would be interested in those things, but just dont know it?

I wish I had got to meet him. If everyone devoted themselves to a cause like Fred did, the world would be a much better place. Keep an eye on the Cable channels, his programmes are often repeated and are well worth a watch.

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Filed under Architecture, Industrial Revolution, On TV

Book of the Week #7 – the Last Escape by John Nichol and Tony Rennell

e Last Escape by John Nichol and Tony Rennell

e Last Escape by John Nichol and Tony Rennell

According to popular myth, Prisoners of War during the Second World War spent most of their time gallantly trying to tunnel out of captivity, goon-baiting or just generally passing the time with a good old sing song and all manner of typically British tally-ho antics.

This may have been true for a very small minority of Prisoners – mainly Air Force Officers, at Colditz or Stalag Luft – but for the vast majority, captivity meant boredom, uncertainty, and survival. And in some cases, untold suffering under extreme conditions, that we are only really beginning to understand today.

As 1944 drew to a close, Germany still held hundreds of thousands of Russian, British, American, French, Polish and many other Prisoners of War. Securing them, keeping them captive, feeding them and looking after them – as they were obliged to under the Geneva Convention – was a huge burden, especially at a time when German civilians and even Soldiers were struggling for food and medicine.

So you would have thought that the Germans would have been very glad to have got these Prisoners off their hands. Not so. In the cynical manner of Nazi policy, various powers that be decided that the POW’s had to be kept hold of at all costs. As a result, thousands upon thousands of men, in appalling conditions and untold brutality, were marched hundreds of miles across Europe in the worst winter for many years. Many never survived to tell the tale. One of the marchers would have been my Grandad, who was captured at Arnhem, and then marched from Stalag XIB in Fallingbostel to Stalag IIIA, near Berlin. Albeit he was going in the opposite direction to most, but still the conditions would have been the same. Understandably he talked very little about it.

Yet this a story that has only been uncovered recently. Immediately after the war, the suffering of POW’s of Japan, and the victims of the Holocaust, all but overshadowed the death marches across Germany in the Winter of 1944 and 1945. And rightly so. But this a story that has to be told and understood. John Nichol – himself a Prisoner of the Iraqis in the first Gulf War after his Tornado was shot down – and Tony Rennell tell it very well indeed. Lets hope that more research is done into this subject very soon.

The Last Escape: The Untold Story of Allied Prisoners of War in Germany 1944-1945

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, World War Two

This week on TV – 31/08/09

I thought I would have a look through the TV schedules and pick out some nice interesting Historical type programmes that might be interesting to watch over the next 7 days.

In Streets in the Sky Architecture Critic Tom Dyckhoff visits one of the most controversial listed buildings in Britain, the Park Hill Flats in Sheffield, Although it was once heralded as the most pioneering public housing scheme in Britain, decades of decline and neglect have transformed it into a grim sink estate. Now it’s protected by English Heritage and raises questions about what we should be saving for the nation (Monday 31 August, BBC2, 19:30).

In Warship, we get an insight into the crew of one of the Royal Navy’s Amphibious Assault ships, HMS Bulwark, as they head off the the Far East on a multinational exercise. New Series (Monday 31 August, Five, 21:00).

For Anyone who missed Martin Freeman’s who do you think you are?, its repeated this week. Well worth a watch if you havent already seen it (Tuesday 1 September, BBC2, 19:00).

Wednesday sees a pretty unique insight into the First World War, in World War One in Colour. Computer techniques are used to colourise vintage newsreel footage of the conflict (Wednesday 2 September, Five, 21:00).

ITV gives us a pretty rare History programme on Thursday, Outbreak. It promises recollections od the day World War Two began (Thursday 3 September, ITV, 22:35).

Friday includes one of the most controversial Period Drama’s of the moment, The Tudors on BBC2. This week Henry VIII, played by Jonathon Rhys Myers, mourns the death of Jane Seymour. 3 down, 3 to go! (Friday 4 September, BBC2, 21:00).

Theres some classic wartime comedy on Saturday, with Dad’s Army. Not sure what episode its gonna be, but to be fair they’re all classic. (Sat 5 September, BBC2, 20:30).

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Filed under Architecture, Family History, Medieval history, Navy, News, On TV, World War One, World War Two

Al Murray’s Road to Berlin

Al Murrays Road to Berlin

Al Murray's Road to Berlin

Most people probably know him as his Pub Landlord Character from ITV’s happy hour. I’m a big fan, I’ve seen his live show and met the guy. But out of character Al Murray is in fact a History Graduate from the University of Oxford. Even more interestingly, he is fluent in both French and German – not sure what the Pub Landlord would say about that!

A few years ago Al released a History series, entitled ‘Al Murray’s road to Berlin’. It follows the campaign to liberate Europe, from just before D-Day to VE Day in May 1945. Its a very well produced programme, originally screened on the Discovery channel and available on DVD. Finally, some kind of documentary on WW2, presented by someone with a good background in History, but also with the common touch!

Al travels from Portsmouth, across to Normandy, through France and Belgium and Holland, jumps into Arnhem to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of Operation Market Garden, and finally goes on to Berlin. He drives around the battlefield sites in an original WW2 Willy’s Jeep, in Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506 markings (Band of Brothers!).

What I really like, is that Al always interviews the normal people who took part in the battle, and doesnt wheel out Major-this or Colonel-that all the time, as some documentaries are prone to do. What is more interesting is that he is the son of a Lieutenant-Colonel, but you really wouldnt think so, which is very refreshing indeed. Aryeh Nusbacher was the Historical Consultant, who to be honest I’m not a fan of, but I reckon Al could have done it on his own anyway. I get the feeling that even if you didnt know much about WW2, you could still watch this and not find it too difficult to take it in, such is the accesible way that it is presented. A lot of so-called-Historians could watch this and take serious note.

I got this for my Birthday this year and its one of my favourite DVD’s. Heres hoping Al does some more History work eventually!

Click here to buy Al Murray’s Road to Berlin!

(l-r) Me, my brother, Al Murray

(l-r) Me, my brother, Al Murray

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Filed under Army, On TV, videos, World War Two

HMS Daring #2

HMS Daring entering Portsmouth Harbour

HMS Daring entering Portsmouth Harbour

Heres the Royal Navy’s newest Type 45 Destroyer, HMS Daring, entering Portsmouth Harbour. I’ve been lucky enough to have a look round Daring earlier in the summer, and you can believe the hype, she’s every bit as impressive as she looks, from close up and far away.

She’s the first in the new class of Destroyers. And what I really like, is that she LOOKS like a warship. I know its a silly thing to say, but if a ship looks scary and mean, and has a mean sounding name, then its only going to be positive for the crew who are operating it. For too long the Navy have had ships that were badly or cheaply designed, and had names taken from either a road atlas of Britain or an eye-spy guide to furry animals. Daring, Dauntless, Dragon… thats more like it!

The entrance to Portsmouth Harbour is a fantastic place to watch warships enter and exit the Naval Base. The shipping movements are publicised in the Evening news a day or two before. The Round Tower is an excellent vantage point, as are the Hot Walls and Spice Island. If you’re really lucky you might catch a ship going out while you’re going on the Gosport Ferry, like I have before. When a ships just going out for a few hours or a day or two often theres just a few nerds there watching, but when a ships going out on a long deployment family and friends crowd the Round Tower to wave the matelots off with Banners and all sorts. And when HMS Hermes came back from the Falklands, my mum and Dad were somehow on a Navy Tug!

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Filed under Falklands War, Local History, Navy, out and about

Shoreham Airshow – the pictures!

I’ve finally managed to upload the hundreds of pictures I took at the Shoreham Airshow last weekend. I’ve sorted through them, and here are the best bits – enjoy!

Me in a Dakota

Me in a Dakota

Me stood in the door - note the red and green jump lights

Me stood in the door - note the red and green jump lights

Always knew those Marines were big lads...

Always knew those Marines were big lads...

Dads Army!

Dads Army!

A WW2 Jeep in RAF Liaison Officer markings

A WW2 Jeep in RAF Liaison Officer markings

Team Guinot wing-walkers

Team Guinot wing-walkers

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress 'Sally B'

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress 'Sally B'

Fleet Air Arm Lynx

Fleet Air Arm Lynx

RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Avro Lancaster

RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Avro Lancaster

Avro Vulcan XH558

Avro Vulcan XH558

RAF Falcons Parachute display team

RAF Falcons Parachute display team

RAF Chinook

RAF Chinook

The Red Arrows... all 10 seconds of them

The Red Arrows... all 10 seconds of them

is it one of ours?

is it one of ours?

(l-r) great-uncle Terry, Me, Grandad

(l-r) great-uncle Terry, Me, Grandad

This guy was having fun... that Parrot isnt photoshopped!

This guy was having fun... that Parrot isnt photoshopped!

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Filed under airshow, event, Navy, out and about, Royal Air Force, Vulcan Bomber, World War One, World War Two

Family History #1 – Getting Started!

Family History is getting a lot more popular nowadays. And its not just the blue rinse brigade of retired old birds either. I’ve worked in a big library with a family history section, and a museum that houses the local records office, and it is definitely getting a lot more popular. You can tell when an episode of who do you think you are has been on, because the next day we get a deluge of enquiries from people wanting to do their family history. I’ve been contacted by some people recently asking for help with their family history, people i would never have imagined would do their family history, and thats really cool. If you know where you’ve come from, you’ve got a much better idea of where you are going.

The problem is, the programme makes it look so simple. The celebrities themselves dont actually do the research, the programme is made by a production company who do all the donkey work. And the problem with that is, it gives people the impression that you can just pick up a phone or pop into a records office and hey presto, everything will unravel for you. Or someone will do it for you. Which is terribly misleading. And for one thing, part of the fun of doing research is not what you find, but HOW you find it.

So, in installments, I’m going to offer some advice on how to do your family history, from someone who has done their own, helped others with theirs, and has worked in libraries and museums. Devoid of the usual bullshit, I hope!

First off… write down what you already know! You would be surprised how many people try and skip this bit. Talk to your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, ask them about names, dates, places, anything and everything then can remember. Write it down. Ask them what photos or documents they might have tucked away in a box in a cupboard or in a loft somewhere. Everything is a potential lead. Birth, Marriage or Death certificates are very useful, not least because to get hold of copies costs £6 each. Once you have a load of info, try and draw up a rough family tree: it doesnt have to be neat and tidy, its a work in progress. You willl add to it, scribble on it, draw lines across it, all sorts. Also, for each person keep a record of their date of birth, their parents, their date of marriage, date of death, occupation, all those kinds of things.

A word of caution, however: family stories often end up being slightly embellished. Over 50 years what starts out as a grain of truth might end up as an incredible story of heroism and daring thats far from the truth. Treat what people tell you as a lead, not truth. Its not that people are lying, it just happens. I was told that my grandad fought in Siciliy and might have been in the SAS, but I’ve found no proof of either. I’ve found proof that he WASN’T in Siciliy, and in the case of the SAS, I’ve found no proof either way, but it is unlikely.

To begin with, dont worry about going on websites or anything like that, concentrate on what is already under your nose. Then, when you start hitting brick walls and have everything in place, you’re ideally set up to follow lines of inquiry, one by one.

In a practical sense, make sure you keep everything tidy in a folder or something. If you make a note of something, note down what book or website it was from, or who told you. Think of family history as detective work, because its exactly the same skills and approach.

Next time, we’ll look at how to start following up leads and how to clear up those annoying dead ends.

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Filed under Family History, Uncategorized