Monthly Archives: September 2009

Navy at ‘minimum capability’

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope

The Royal Navy is at its ‘minimum capability’, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope has told the Portsmouth Evening News.

With a full defence spending review likely whoever wins the next General Election, the armed forces have already begun talking about possible cuts. Admiral Stanhope warned that he faced a battle in the Defence Review, and that the Navy could take no more cuts if it was to carry on with its existing roles. Not only does it have its existing roles to think about, but also any unforseen developments on the global stage. Who could have predicted 9/11 and the impact it would have on global security?

With massive cuts in public spending necessary in light of the global recession and spiralling national debt, it is inevitable that some Defence projects will come under threat. This is a difficult balance to find. Big construction projects, such as shipbuilding, secure many jobs around the country, and are vital to economic recovery in several industries. Also, we are committed to projects such as the Eurofighter Typhoon. Even though we probably dont need 200+ Eurofighters, we were committed to ordering that many to keep the international consortium building them afloat.

Public support for the Army is very strong at present, given its visible role in Afghanistan, and the persistent outcry over the lack of and inferiority of equipment issued to troops serving in theatre. The price of a few Eurofighters would pay for a hell of a lot of top quality body armour.

The Royal Navy faces a particularly though time, as it has committed itself to two huge 60,000 ton aircraft carriers, at the expense of frigates and destroyers. Indeed, the new Type 45 Destroyer was cut from a planned 12 ships to an eventual order for 6, which of course is nowhere near enough. There are as yet no firm plans to replace the Type 22 and Type 23 Frigates. Ships can only be in one place at any time, and for every ship on duty, you have to plan for at least 1, possibly 2 being in port or refit.

One cannot help if we might have been better served with several smaller, cheaper aircraft carriers and more escorts to protect them. The first Aircraft Carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will be safe as work has already started on her and it would cost more to cancel her. But the second, HMS Prince of Wales, will almost certainly come under threat. We could potentially be left with one huge and expensive to run aircraft carrier, which is far too inflexible.

As much as politicians may give credit to our armed forces, their commitment – or lack of it – really shows when it comes to finding the money to back them up for real. Defence Reviews are a notoriously tricky business and have caused the demise of more than one politician, as John Nott will testify.

Expect to see more Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals making their cases in the news in the coming months.


Filed under Army, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force

Family History #6 – Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates

part of a Birth Certificate

part of a Birth Certificate

After the Civil Registration act in 1837, it became law to officially register every birth, marriage and death in the United Kingdom. As a result, it became much easier to track how many people were being born, where, how many people were dying, and so forth. Hundreds of years later, the hatch match and dispatch records are invaluable for doing your family tree.

Every birth, adoption, marriage, civil partnership or death registered in England or Wales has a General Register Office (GRO) index reference number. It usually consists of the year, volume number, page number and district in which the event was registered. For example, my great-grandparents marriage certificate in Portsmouth in 1917 has the reference ‘1917, 2b, 865, Portsmouth’.

You can find a certificate even if you are not completely sure when an event took place. As long as you know which quarter it happened in, this makes things much easier, as you can search the BMD indexes, at sites such as FreeBMD and Ancestry. The indexes are also available to search in many local librarys and archives. From 1837 to 1984 the index information for each year is divided into quarters. The quarters are split as follows:

* March quarter – events registered in January, February and March
* June quarter – April, May and June
* September quarter – July, August and September
* December quarter – October, November and December

The earliest index is for September quarter 1837. After 1984 the indexes are organised by year only.

Once you have an index number, you can apply for a copy certificate from either the General Register Office in London, or the local Register office where the event took place. There is normally a charge for this, depending on what exactly it is you want, and how long it takes the staff to search for the original entry.

The make up of the certificates and the information that they contain has changed slightly over time, but most of the common features remain.

Birth certificates -these are normally red – tell you when and where the birth took place, the name of the child, gender, full name of father (if known or entered, of course!), full name and maiden name of mother, occupation of father, details of the informant, when registered and the name of the registrar.

Marriage certificates – these are usually in the green – tell you when the marriage took place, the full names of the husband and wife, their ages and conditions, rank or profession, residence at time of marriage, fathers surname and profession. Interestingly, it also tells you what parish the marriage took place in, if it was in the rites of any chuch or religion, and the minister who officiated.

Death certificates – suitable in black – tell you when and where someone died, the deceased’s name, gender, age, occupation, cause of death, signature description and residence of the informant, when registered, and a signature of the registrar.

So you can see how for every certificate you manage to get hold of, it will give you a step backwards to the next generation. That way, used alongside the census returns, you can trace your family back one step at a time.

Not only do certificates give you an idea of names, dates, places, but they give you a lot more social information too, that colours what is otherwise a very impersonal family tree. You can find out about the jobs that your ancestors did, how they migrated and moved around the country, any illnesses that they might have had, and what religion they were. So something that could be just any other family history suddenly becomes very personal to you.


Filed under Family History

£13m for UK’s Heritage

The Heritage Lottery Fund today announced £13m worth of grants for four Heritage projects around the UK.

Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes is the historic site of secret British code breaking activities during World War Two and birthplace of the modern computer. It has been awarded HLF development funding of £460,500 towards a further potential application of £4.1million. Proposals include: repairing key buildings to highlight the crucial part the site played in the World War Two code breaking story; improving visitor facilities; and expanding the site’s educational programmes.

HLF’s £3.3million grant will fund the transformation of the redundant 19th-century All Souls Church in Bolton into a state-of-the-art facility providing training, education, youth activities, health and welfare services to the local community. Plans include taking out the existing pews and replacing them with a community centre, made up of two ‘pods’ that will sit within the church building.

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich will also benefit. Thanks to HLF’s £5million grant, an elegant and inviting entrance will be created directly from Greenwich Park and much more of the collection and archive will be displayed in the new library, archive facilities and special exhibitions gallery.

The Vindolanda Trust has some of the most important collections of ‘real life’ from the Roman world. Their museums are situated on the extensive remains of two Roman forts and civilian settlements on Hadrian’s Wall – England’s largest World Heritage Site. The HLF’s £4million grant will link the two sites and the proposed new gallery space and education centre have been designed to inspire the next generation of young archaeologists. A significant element of Vindolanda’s collection currently in storage will be on show for the first time.

Stowe Landscape Gardens in Buckinghamshire was created by some of the 18th century’s leading architects, sculptors and gardeners, including Capability Brown, John Vanbrugh and William Kent. Thanks to a grant of £1.5million, the original entrance to the Garden will be reinstated. By transforming the visitor experience, people will enjoy a greater understanding of what it would have been like to visit Stowe in its heyday.

Using money raised through the National Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) sustains and transforms a wide range of heritage for present and future generations to take part in, learn from and enjoy. From museums, parks and historic places to archaeology, natural environment and cultural traditions, we invest in every part of our diverse heritage. HLF has supported more than 28,800 projects, allocating over £4.3billion across the UK.

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Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, maritime history, Museums, News, social history, World War Two

Arnhem Airborne Museum opens new extension

The new Airborne Museum extension, Arnhem

The new Airborne Museum extension, Arnhem

The Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek, Arnhem opened its brand new multi-million extension during this years 60th anniversary commemorations.

A museum about the battle was first opened in 1949 in Doorwerth Castle near the Rhine. In 1980 it moved to the Hotel Hartenstein in Oosterbeek. This large white hotel had been the headquarters of Feldmarschall Walter Model before the battle and was the HQ of Major General Roy Urquhart during the siege of Oosterbeek. I’ve visitied the museum three times now and every time I have been struck by the loving care with which it has obviously been put together, and how it is looked after so well.

An ambitious renovation programme has brought the museum right into the 21st century, with dramatic and evocative dioramas, new multimedia displays and a thoughtful emphasis on the future. It involved closing the museum for 9 months, digging an underground basement next to the museum and turning this into a new extension, leaving the original museum intact. This should make what is a grand and famous museum more accessible and enjoyable for younger visitors.

It looks like the legacy of the Battle of Arnhem is in safe hands for years to come. I can’t wait to go and see the new extension.


Filed under Arnhem, News, World War Two

Historian chic?

Isn’t it funny how certain jobs seem to have their own informal uniform? Without there being any written down rules, certain professions just seem to dress a certain way. And Historians seem to be no exception.

As far as I can tell, the dress code for your average historian is cordurouy trousers, a tweed jacket or something similar, and scary looking facial hair. For extra Historian-ness, a handkerchief in your jacket pocket and a sensible briefcase type bag full of inane notes really works. Wear braces and you’re Historian royalty. Some of the Historians I’ve seen at work in various places could have walked straight off of the set of All Creatures Great and Small.

The History Department of the University of Darrowby

The History Department of the University of Darrowby

Try walking into a Museum or an Archive to do some research, wearing an Ozzy Osbourne or Metallica T-shirt. Somehow, no-one seems to think you could possible be doing anything worthwhile. But walk into the same place with a side-parting and suitably attired and you could pass off as the leading authority on the history of bilingual ferret stuffing in norther Somerset.

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This week on TV – week beginning 28 Sept 09

Here’s my pick of the interestingly historical looking programmes on the box this coming week.

Monday 28 September – Bang Goes the Theory sees Liz Bonnin joins the RAF’s flight school to find out the truth about multi-tasking. Sounds like a ‘men can’t multitask’ programme this one! (BBC1, 7.30pm).

Tuesday 29 September – In the Victorian Farm Three Historians live the lives of Victorian Farmers. This week they deliver lambs and piglets, and turn to victorian science for a solution to their crop problems (BBC2, 7pm, continues at the same time every day this week). Also on Tuesday Warship sees the Royal Marines training in Brunei, and teambuilding with US colleagues (Five, 8pm).

Wednesday 30 September – In Railway Walks Julia Bradbury looks at the impact of tin and copper in Cornwall (BBC2, 7pm). Also on Wednesday Building the Ultimate looks at the evolution of the aircraft carrier from World War 2 to the present day (Five, 7.30pm). Straight afterwards World War One in Colour follows the battle on the eastern front, leading up to the Russian Revolution (Five, 8pm).

Thursday 1 October – Not strictly a historical programme, but this week David Starkey guests on Question Time. In Brighton for the Labour Party Conference, this should be worth a watch (BBC1, 10.35pm).

Saturday 3 October – In Dads Army Godfrey learns that his cottage faces demolition (BBC2, 7.45pm).


Filed under Army, debate, Navy, News, On TV, World War One

Books of the week – Maritime special

This weeks regular review looks at not one, but two of the latest releases from the National Maritime Museum.

Egyptian Sketches - Edward Lear

Egyptian Sketches - Edward Lear

Art has always had a romantic and insightful role to play in Maritime History. Edward Lear may be better known as a poet and writer of ‘the owl and the pussycat’, but Lear also travelled widely and often illustrated his own writings. Egyptian Sketches is a fascinating collection of watercolour sketches that transports the reader back to nineteenth century Egypt, seen through the eyes of a Victorian traveller. Whilst I could never claim to be an art expert, this collection of sketches illuminates much about Victorian society – keen interest in travel, an antiquary-like passion for ancient civilisation, as well as being set of very pleasant paintings in their own right. Well presented, and with a commentary from Jenny Gaschke, Curator of Fine Art at the National Maritiem Museum, this would be an ideal read for the enthusiast of maritime art.

The Bird of Dawning - John Masefield

The Bird of Dawning - John Masefield

One of my favourites units studying history at university was maritime history. Mornings spent listening to our wisened tutor talking of tea from India more than made up for the more mundance subjects we were inflicted with. So it is with a certain nostalgia that I read The Bird of Dawning, by John Masefield. A Poet Laureate, Masefield spent many of his early years on board ships, and this experience had a profound impact on the young Poet. Evocative of a time when clippers raced back from India to get the best prices for their cargo of tea, disaster strikes and the crew have to survive sharks, mutiny and the unforgiving power of the sea. Masefield’s nautical background ensures that you can almost smell the salt on the pages, and the tension of his narrative fittingly portrays the gravity of the story. The Bird of Dawning was originally published in 1933, and this fine reissue is introduced by Dr. Phillip Errington, an expert on Masefield and his work.

The Bird of Dawning is available now, and Egyptian Sketches is published on 15 October 2009. Both published by the National Maritime Museum.


Filed under art, Book of the Week, fiction, maritime history, Museums, Uncategorized

65 years ago today – Arnhem: The Aftermath

Oosterbeek War Cemetery

Oosterbeek War Cemetery

The end of Operation Market Garden left the allies in possession of a 60 male salient into Holland. While a large part of Dutch territory had been liberated, the corridor led to nowhere, the aims of Market Garden had not been achieved.

For the Allied soldiers left fighting in Holland, the coming winter would be cold and miserable. The US Airborne Divisions were only withdrawn into reserve in time to take part in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. Meanwhile to the west the British and Canadians were involved in a bitter struggle to clear the approaches to Antwerp, a priority that had been overlooked in the dash to outflank the Rhine.

The Dutch civilians left in Arnhem and Oosterbeek were cleared from their houses after the battle. They suffered a terrible winter, during which much of the Dutch population starved, being left to eat tulip bulbs. They paid a terrible price for an operation that Monty described as ‘90% succesful’.

The wounded and captured faced months of hardship and anguish until they were liberated at the end of the war. Many of the wounded were taken to a Hospital in Apeldoorn, and then on to POW Camps in Germany. Many were held at Stalag XIB near Fallingbostel, on the North German Plain. One of them was my Granddad, who was later moved to Stalag IIIA near Berlin before being liberated by the Russians.

Strategically, the British Second Army had been driven northwards by its advance. This in turn led to the US First Army moving northwards to stay in touch with it, opening up a dangerous gap with Patton’s US Third Army further South. In typical Patton fashion his Army had been advancing eastwards of his own accord. This gap was exploited by the Germans in December 1944.

Could Monty’s plan have worked? If Eisenhower had backed it fully with resources, and halted Patton, it is likely that the plan would have had more success, despite the failures at Arnhem. Whether the Allies could have carried on into Germany is difficult to assess. The Battle at Arnhem would have been very different had the Dropping Zones been selected closer to the Bridge, if the whole Division had been landed in two drops on one day, if Browning had stayed at home and if XXX Corps had driven with more haste at critical moments. Concerns about flak were unfounded, and Browning played little part in the battle.

Market Garden has often been cited as a blot on Monty’s reputation. It would be hard to argue that it was indeed a daring plan, and very nearly worked. But as much as it is true to say that the allies needed to capture all of the Bridges or the operation was not worth it, it is also accurate to state that unless the operation was made a complete priority and given the appropriate resources, it was not worth the risk. While Eisenhower did not want to upset American public opinion, winning the war quickly should have been more important.

Arnhem was eventually liberated in April 1945, by the 49th (West Riding) Division. The town has been rebuilt, and every year in September Veterans and grateful Dutch people gather to commemorate the Battle, which has passed into legend as one of the bravest yet most spectacular failures in military history. Nevertheless, Heroic stories abound. The story of Flight Lieutenant David Lord VC, who kept piloting his burning Dakota so his crew could escape. Major Robert Cain VC, who repeatedly fought off German tanks. Of Lance Sergeant Baskeyfield VC, who manned an anti-tank gun on his own, destroying tank after tank until killed. But most of all, the ordinary men who fought at Arnhem, and maybe didnt win medals, but did their best. We should be very proud of them.

1,514 men are buried in Arnhem-Oosterbeek War Cemetery. Nearby the Hartenstein Hotel Airborne Museum tells the story of the battle, and has just undergone a multi-million refurbishment. All of the sights and places of the battle are still there to look at, from the Drop Zone at Ginkel Heath to Arnhem Bridge.


Filed under Army, Arnhem, Remembrance, World War One

Sinking of the Laconia

Filming began last week on a new TV Docu-Dama series, based in the sinking of the Cunard Liner SS Laconia in the second world war.

SS Laconia

SS Laconia

On 12 September 1942, at 8:10pm, 130 miles north-northeast of Ascension Island, Laconia was hit by a torpedo on the starboard side, fired by U-boat U-156. There was an explosion in the hold and most of the 450 Italian prisoners the ship was carrying were killed instantly. The vessel immediately took a list to starboard. Captain Sharp, who had also commanded Lancastria when she was torpedoed, was beginning to control the situation when a second torpedo hit.

Captain Sharp ordered the ship abandoned and the women, children and injured taken into the lifeboats first. Some of the 32 lifeboats had been destroyed by the explosions and some surviving Italian prisoners tried to rush those that remained. The efforts of the Polish guards were instrumental in controlling the chaotic situation on board and saved many lives.

At 9:11pm Laconia sank with many Italian prisoners still on board. The prospects for those who escaped the ship were only slightly better; sharks were common in the area and the lifeboats were adrift in the mid-Atlantic with little hope of being rescued.

However, before Laconia went down, U-156 surfaced. The U-boat’s efforts to rescue survivors of its own attack began what came to be known as the Laconia incident. Realising who the passengers were, U-156 started rescue operations flying the Red Cross flag. The Laconia incident had far-reaching consequences. Until then, it was common for U-boats to assist torpedoed survivors with food, water, simple medical care for the wounded, and a compass bearing to the nearest landmass; it was extremely rare for survivors to be brought on board as space on a U-boat was barely enough for its own crew. Now Dönitz prohibited rescues; survivors were to be left in the sea. Even afterwards, U-boats would still occasionally provide aid for survivors. At the Nuremberg Trials held in 1946, Dönitz was indicted for war crimes, including the issuance of the “Laconia order”:

Although hardly known, more people perished when the Laconia was sunk than died on the Titanic. For such a far-reaching and destructive incident, it plays almost no part in the history of the second world war, or in peoples awareness.

Of course, I await the Sinking of the Laconia reaching the screen with interest, as my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard the Laconia when she went down. He was transferring home after being promoted to Leading Stoker onboard HMS Enterprise. He died later in 1943 from illness he suffered while in French captivity in Morrocco, after being picked up by Vichy French Warships.

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Brian Cox (Sharpe, Troy) will star as the Laconias Captain, Rudolph Sharp.

Click here for more on The Sinking of the Laconia


Filed under Navy, News, On TV, World War Two

The National Archives

The National Archives

The National Archives

I’ve just got back from a day at the National Archives in London, where I’ve been doing some research on Portsmouth Airport.

The National Archives is the UK government’s official archive, containing almost 1,000 years of history, with records ranging from parchment and paper scrolls through to digital files and archived websites. The National Archives’ collection is one of the largest in the world, with 11 million records, from Domesday Book to modern government papers.

I’ve visited the National Archives many times over the years, ever since I first went in search of Admiralty correspondence when researching the compass-making exploits of George Stebbing. Since then I have looked at Second World War unit diaries, the ships logs of HMS Beagle, Hydrographic Office records, Cold War British Army records, and now pre-war and post-war Air Ministry and Treasury documents regarding Portsmouth Airport.

It really is a fascinating place. You can search the Archives complete catalogue online. You order a document or file on a computer terminal, then half an hour or so later it arrives in a double-doored locker with your seat number on it. You then take it to your desk, and leaf through age-old documents that open doors to bygone ages. Some of the documents I’ve looked at have had the handwriting of Winston Churchill himself, or mentioned a certain Mr C. Darwin.

The National Archives are also a great place to do some family history research, and they have all kinds of records available to look at. Some of the most common records, especially ones that many people want to look at, are on microfiche or microfilm, to save the original records from getting worn out. Add in a fascinating museum, that includes the Magna Carta and the Domesday Book, a cracking – if a bit overpriced – cafe, and a well stocked Bookshop, and its one of those must-visit places for any Historian.

When you’re sat at the desk reading, you can’t help but look round, and wonder what all the other people are researching – which of them are bestselling authors working on ther latest book? Or, are they simply family history enthusiasts in it for the enjoyment of it? Thats the beauty of researching histor, everyone is getting their hands dirty with real history, and not just getting spoonfed by celebrity historians.


Filed under out and about

65 years ago today – the end at Arnhem

walking wounded being marched away from Arnhem

walking wounded being marched away from Arnhem

Early on the 25th September 1944 Generals Urquhart and Thomas agreed to evacuate the Airborne Division from Oosterbeek that night. The evacuation had to take place that night, as Urquhart feared that they were being attacked so heavily that it might be their last chance before they were overwhelmed completely.

Urquhart put together a plan that he hoped would enable as many of the surviving airborne troops to escape as possible. He modelled it on the evacuation of the Galipoli peninsula during the first world war, compared to a ‘collapsing bag’. The medical staff and chaplains agreed to stay and take care of the wounded, and wireless operators volunteered to remain behind and man the radios, giving the Germans something to listen to and keep them occupied.

On the night of the operation, sardonically code-named Operation Berlin, XXX Corps laid on a full scale artillery fire plan from the south bank of the Rhine. This gave the Germans the impression that the British were attempting to cross the Rhine and reinforce the bridgehead, and not to evacuate it.

Glider Pilots manned evacuation routes down to the River, marked by white tape. Men wrapped their boots in cloth so as to not make too much noise. Once they reached the riverbank most waited patiently for te boats. Engineers crossed the Rhine in assault boats, powered by outboard engines. Many of them ferried across again and again all through the night, finally stopping at down. More than a few airborne men decided to swim the river instead, and sadly several drowned in the Rhine’s turbulent waters.

By dawn most of the men had escaped, leaving the wounded and their helpers facing captivity. The Germans had been completely taken by surprise, and had no inkling that a withdrawal was taking place until it was completed. In the film Bridge too far the wounded sit at the Hartenstein Hotel, awaiting the Germans, and sing Abide with me. Although this probably didnt happen quite as in the film, the scence captures what the mood must have been like.

The survivors were taken back to Nijmegen, where they received food and shelter. Although they had undergone significant hardship, one party of men marched smartly from the Rhine down to Arnhem. Major Cain, who had just won a VC, even found time to shave before crossing. General Browning, waiting at Nijmegen, found it almost impossible to talk to the survivors, so startled was he by their experiences.

Over 10,000 men had landed at Arnhem. Only 2398 men returned. 1500 had been killed, and the remainder were captured and became Prisoners of War, many of them were taken to Stalag XIB POW camp in Northern Germany. They endured even more hardship until they were liberated in April and May 1945. One of them was my grandfather, Private Henry Miller. A smaller number of men evaded capture and succesfully made it back to British lines, including the seriously wounded Brigadier John Hackett.

Meanwhile, further down the corridor the two American Airborne Divisions would carry on fighting almost into November, suffering more casualties in this period than they did during the battle itself. XXX Corps remained in its positions in a cold, wet Holland throughout the winter of 1944 and 1945.

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Filed under Army, Arnhem, Remembrance, World War Two

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth is one of the three main operating bases of the Royal Navy, as well as Devonport in Plymouth and the Clyde/Faslane. Its the base for two thirds of the Navy’s surface fleet, as well as home of the oldest dry dock in the world.

Portsmouth’s importance goes back almost a thousand years. The first major settlement in the area was the Roman and then Norman Castle at Portchester. By the time of King Henry VIII, however, Portsmouth Harbour had began to silt up, so a new naval base was created at the mouth of the harbour, including the first dry dock in Europe. Constructed in 1496, this was situated around the area of the modern day no.1 basin.

As the British Empire grew and the Royal Navy’s commitments abroad multiplied, the important of Portsmouth as a naval base and dockyard exploded. In particular, when Britain was at war with France, Portsmouth was crucial due to its location. Thousands of shipwrights, riggers, caulkers, sailmakers, and all manner of specialist trades worked in the Yard.

Although the importance of the Navy to Portsmouth is well known – and indeed, we can imagine the many thousands of men and indeed women who worked in the Navy and the Dockyard – something that is so often overlooked is the huge infrastructure of supportive industries needed to support shipbuilding and maintenance. Supplies had to be shipped in from far afield – Timber from around the country, Pitch, Hemp and Tar from the Baltic, Coal from North East England and South Wales, and all manner of food and drink. And for many years, the East India Company used Portsmouth as an operating base. Many of the Dockyard’s wonderful storehouses and Boathouses date from this period.

Isamabard Kingdom Brunel’s father, Marc Brunel, established the Block Mills in the Dockyard in the early 19th Century, the first mass-production line in Britain. Other great engineers who have worked at Portsmouth include Thomas Telford and Samuel Bentham.

As the wooden walls of Nelson’s Navy gave way to the great Ironclads of the late Victorian Navy, a new set of skills had to be acquired. The Dockyard expanded massively in the late Victorian era, known as the ‘Great Extension’. During this time, the Yard was the biggest Industrial estate in the world.

Ships made of iron plate, new bigger and heavier guns, steam propulsion, led to new trades. From the launching of the Dreadnoughts, and the two World Wars, Portsmouth was at the heart of Britain’s defence. After 1945 however and the withdrawal from much of Britain’s overseas commitments, the contraction of the Navy meant a gradual winding down of the Dockyard, until it was privatised in the 1980’s. Despite this, the yard put together a magnificent effort to ready ships for the Falklands War, some of which were made ready and sailed for war as little as 2 days after the Argentinians invaded. The oldest part of the Dockyard is now a Heritage area, with HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, the Mary Rose and the Royal Naval Museum open to visitors.

The Dockyard had an incredible impact on Portsmouth and its culture. Whole families have worked in the yard, including many of my family and ancestors. My dad still has quite a few of his Dockyard tools in the shed! Uniquely, Dockyard workers have always been known as Dockies, and not Dockers as elsewhere.

Finally, there is a tale that one day all of the items in Portsmouth that have been stolen from the Dockyard will grow legs and walk back there. Given that so many tools and materials have mysteriously ‘walked’ out of the Dockyard in the first place, one wonders if Portsmouth woud fall apart if this was ever to happen!


Filed under Architecture, Falklands War, Family History, Industrial Revolution, Local History, maritime history, Museums, Napoleonic War, Navy, World War One, World War Two

65 years ago – The battle slips away

Sosabowski and Thomas at Driel on the 23rd

Sosabowski and Thomas at Driel on the 23rd

After the Poles landed south of the Rhine, the Germans carried on mortaring and shelling the British positions in the Oosterbeek perimeter. By now the British were severely lacking in ammunition, food and other supplies. They faced a number of determined attacks that threatened to overwhelm them completely.

After the Irish Guards began their advance from Nijmegen, it became clear that the high, exposed road leading to Arnhem was completely unsuitable for tanks. As a result, the 43rd (Wessex) Division took over the attack, choosing to swing left away from the road and attempt to link up with the Poles at Driel.

Given the grievous losses suffered at Arnhem and Nimegen by the airborne soldiers, it is not difficult to escape the conclusion that Thomas and his Division could have tried harder. When they eventually reached Driel and came into radio contact with Urquhart, Thomas asked Urquhart why he did not counter shell the Germans. “with what?”, was Urquharts infuriated reply.

On the night of 24 September the 4th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment attempted to cross the River. Like the Poles before them they were met with heavy fire, and only a few men got across. Many of the Dorsets were taken prisoner, including their Commanding Officer.

It was becoming clear that the German opposition to Operation Market Garden had been much stronger than anticipated. All along the corridor, from the Belgian border, Eindhoven and up to Nijmegen and beyond XXX Corps and the US 82nd and 101st Division were fighting tooth and nail to hold their ground. A bridgehead over the Rhine near Arnhem could possibly have been accomplished, but it was apparent that the Ground Forces did not have the resources to carry on the advance and outflank the Ruhr, thus rendering the whole Operation a failure.

At a conference back down the corridor Horrocks and Browning met with Miles Dempsey, the commander of the British Second Army. This was the first time that Dempsey had played any meaningful part in the battle. The naturally ebullient Horrocks wanted to carry out a left hook and cross the Rhine to the west, but Dempsey ordered that this was not possible, and that the survivors of the 1st British Airborne Division were to be evacuated as soon as possible. This was done with Browning’s approval, the only real contribution Browning had made to the whole operation since landing.

Sadly, the recriminations were already beginning. Sosabowski’s abrasive character had made him few friends, and rapidly senior British officers began to treat him most shamefully. He received no backing from Browning, technically his commanding officer. The Poles were placed under the command of Thomas, an officer junior to Sosabowski, who told the experienced Pole that if he did not carry out his orders, he would find someone who would.

Even though the fighting at Arnhem was drawing to a close, the shameful episode over who was at fault was only just beginning.

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Filed under Arnhem, Remembrance, Uncategorized, World War Two

Family History #5 – Using the Census

A typical census return

A typical census return

Its quite common nowadays to hear all sorts of groans and moans about the nanny state, and the Government taking down information. Sometimes they have a fair point, but it is all too easy to forget that if the Government did not take surveys and collect information, it would be so much harder to provide public services. After all, how can you plan for education, healthcare, social services, if you dont know how many people live in the country?

Until relatively recently, around the late 1830’s, the only accurate information about who was born, who was alive, and who lived where, was contained in Church records, such as registers of births, marriages and deaths. But what about people who did not go to church? At the same time, outrage about the poor conditions in many towns led to a call for better public services.

As a result, in 1837 a formal structure came into being to officially register every birth, every marriage, and every death. Four years later, in 1841, the first detailed census was taken of inhabitants of the United Kingdom. Since then censuses have been taken every 10 years, and the information contained in them is released into the public domain 100 years after the census date, when it is presumed that most people in them have died. The exception to this is the 1911 census, which was released in 2009. As a result, you can use any of the censuses from 1841 to 1911 for your research.

Census returns are organised by County, Parish, urban or rural District, Parliamentary Borough and Town of Village. The census returns record who was living in a household on census night. The returns were filled in by an enumerator, which explains why each street, and each neighbourhood, is all filled in with the same handwriting.

There is a whole range of information about each household, and each person. The entries are by road, starting from house number one onwards. The first household member is usually the head of the household, followed by spouses, children, other relatives and other people such as employees and servants.

For each person in the census, you can usually find at least some of the following: road name, house number, name and surname, relation to head of the family, condition of marriage, age on last birthday, profession or occupation, employed or self-employed, where born, and any physical or mental disabilities.

As well as residential areas, the census also covers buildings such as Hospitals, schools, lunatic asylums, naval ships and military barracks.

So you can see that finding people on a census return can tell you a whole load of information, and can really help to fill in gaps, place people at a certain place in time, and find out about family relationships that you may not be sure about. And crucially, it can also give you a lot of other information, such as someones occupation and disabilities. Who was living with who? who was living near who? Did all the same people in road work at the same place, or in the same jobs? There are all manner of things a census can reveal.

Although much of what is on a census is rather humdrum, you can also find some rather intriguing discoveries. When researching Joseph Stebbing, I was informed that in the 1871 census there was an Agnes S. Earley living next door to Joseph Stebbing. What did the S stand for? Stebbing, as it turned out!

So where can you look at the census? The most accesible port of call is probably 1901 census online and 1911 census online, although there is a charge for these services. FreeCen is a free searchable database of census returns, although it is by no means complete new transcriptions are being added regularly by volunteers. Similar services can also be found at Ancestry.

But dont rule out visiting your local library or records office, most of them have at least the most local census returns available to look at on microfilm. Also, the National Archives have all of the census returns available to look at in their reading rooms.


Filed under Family History, Local History, Uncategorized

65 years ago today – the plight of the Poles

Polish Paratroopers preparing for take off

Polish Paratroopers preparing for take off

Perhaps the most tragic of all the tragic elements of the Battle of Arnhem is that of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade.

Recruited from exiled Poles who had escaped from occupied Poland and made their way to Britain, the Parachute Brigade had been training hard in Scotland for several years. Under the command of the Polish Government in exile, they had in fact pioneered many of the training features that were later adopted by their British counterparts, who had been relatively late in developing airborne forces. The original plan had been to use the Brigade to drop into Poland as part of the liberation of their homeland, possibly in conjunction with an underground uprising.

When Lieutenant-General Browning took over as commander of British Airborne Forces, he quickly identified the Poles as a unit that he would like under his command. From then on significant pressure was exerted on the Poles to put the Brigade under Allied command for the invasion of Europe. This sat uneasily with Major-General Sosabowski and his men, who wanted to go into action in Poland. Eventually a deal was struck whereby the Poles would fight one battle under allied command, and then revert back to Polish command.

Sosabowski’s independent, and at times abrupt manner won him very few friends among allied command. Although men such as Urquhart and Hackett had a healthy respect for the experienced Polish General, Browning had developed a deep dislike for him. Sosabowski’s known disapproval of the Arnhem plan muddied waters even further.

Originally due to jump into action on 19 September, on a drop zone south of Arnhem Bridge, their take off was delayed due to poor weather over the airfields in England. They finally arrived in Holland on 21 September, at a drop zone just south of the River Rhine at Driel. The plan was that the Poles could secure the south bank, await XXX Corps arrival and hopefully reinforce the British across the Rhine. The arrival of the Poles forced the Germans to redeploy more troops to oppose them, giving some respite to the British over the river. On 22 September the Poles, along with British engineering assistance, attempted to cross the Rhine. Although using only small rubber boats, a small number of men made it across.

The Poles had done everything that could have been expected of them, fighting in a battle in a strange country, having jumped into a desparate situation over which they had so little control. Nevertheless, wheels were already in motion that would lead to one of the most shameful legacies of Operation Market Garden.


Filed under Uncategorized