Category Archives: Museums

The Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre

I was very pleased to hear from Leon recently, who is the driving force behind the project to create a Heritage Centre at the late, great man’s house in Bolton.

Their intention is to turn the site back to how it would have been during its heyday when Fred was alive. After 4 years of being unoccupied while Fred’s will was executed apparently the house was in a poor state and it has taken a lot of work to get it up to standard.

Of course apart from the extensive steam-powered workshop in the back yard, complete with replica coal mine, the house itself is also an architectural wonder. Originally built in 1854, this was the gatehouse for the estate owned by the Earl of Bradford. Rumour has it that it was built purely as a ‘folly’. It appears from the front to be a little one floor cottage; however it is quite deceiving because it is of subterranean structure meaning that there’s a lower floor below ground level, which is level with the ground at the rear, leading to the gardens and yard. Its a grade 2 Listed Building, with a blue plaque on the wall outside.

Leon and his wife’s ultimate aim is to make this wonderful place into a Heritage Centre, where people of all ages can come and see how Fred worked. It really would be a tragedy if the history that Fred strived to create was lost for future generations. But they don’t want it to just be a museum, they want people to see it working, actually being used to make things, and do what it was designed to do.

I applaud their aims wholeheartedly, as someone who is a fan of not only Fred, but his values and what he represented. Industrial Heritage should be seen in operation, working. Especially with machinery like steam Engines – only when they are working can you appreciate the sounds, the smells, the atmosphere.

I will be featuring more about the campaign to establish and develop the Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre, but for now take a look at their website!

The Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre


Filed under Industrial Revolution, Museums

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard


Originally uploaded by dalyhistory2010

For the first time in years I went and had a proper look round Portsmouth Historic Dockyard yesterday. Heres a picture of the bows of HMS Victory, Nelson’s Flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

I’d been on most of the attractions at the Dockyard several times quite a few years ago now, but I really enjoyed Action Stations. One thing I have about Museums or other attractions is when they have these wonderful activities for children – but what about Adults? What I really like about Action Stations is that its for everyone. Kids will enjoy it, but theres no need for adults to stand around like a lemon watching!

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Filed under Dockyard, Museums, out and about, Uncategorized

Museum Fatigue

You look at the display panels and the glass cases. You can see the words, but your brain cannot take it all in. You see the pictures, and somehow you no longer feel so interested. Nothing jumps out at you. You’re irritated by the kids running around. The glass of coke and slice of cake are giving you a sugar rush. You’ve been there a couple of hours, and you’re thinking its time to call it a day. But the person with you insists on reading EVER word – argh! You can’t even be bothered to look through the shop on the way out.

Congratulations, you’ve got Museum Fatigue!

There is no shame in suffering from this totally random, unforgiving, but entirely curable ailment. It happens to the best of us. I love Museums – hell, I’ve worked in them since I was 16 – but sometimes its all too much. Think about it – why do lectures at University last for an hour? Because thats all the human brain can take in terms of learning at any one time. Even if you can keep looking at 17th Century Dutch Art after that, your brain won’t be taking it in quite as well. I’m sure that the human brain learns better in smaller, focussed sessions. And you enjoy visiting Museums more like this too – if you get bored or irritable, then you wont enjoy yourself.

So all day at a Museum or any kind of similar venue really is pushing it. It helps if somewhere has fresh air, a decent cafe, lots of different displays, audio-visuals, maybe even some physical activities. But I do know that maybe Museums need to look beyond having row upon row of medals, or paintings, or fine china saucers – sometimes I think less is more, and reduces the overload on the human brain. Most people visit Museums in their spare time, after all, and people want to enjoy their spare time. And whats enjoyable about going home with a headache?


Filed under Museums

Portsmouth’s Glider Pilots

The Second World War saw the development of Gliders to transport airborne troops into battle. Alongside Parachute troops, Gliders enabled Armies to develop airborne forces on a substantial scale. The first decisive use of Gliders was in 1940 during the spectacular German coup-de-main seizure of Eben Emael, a border fortress in Belgium. By September 1944 the allies were able to launch 35,000 airborne troops during Operation Market.

One of the biggest problems with Gliders was their manning – just who was to fly them? The RAF was unwilling to waste precious aircrew on what it saw a peripheral task to its main roles or strategic bombing and air defence. Bomber Harris even scoffed at the thought of army troops flying Gliders.

But fly them they did. The Glider Pilot was formed from volunteers throughout the Army. Volunteers were given basic flying training to enable them to fly Gliders while being towed by a transport plane, and then to land them with a degree of accuracy and safety. Senior commanders in the Regiment flew Gliders on operations, including the CO, but the standard Glider aircrew consisted of a Staff Sergeant as Pilot and Sergeant as co-pilot. Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning qualified as a Glider Pilot after his attempts at Parachuting resulted in injury.

When they landed Glider Pilots formed up into infantry units, and provided a useful manpower reserve. In contrast, the American Glider Pilots were not combatants, and actually required troops to protect them. Flying Gliders was indeed a dangerous business: many paratroops remarked that they would rather parachute into battle than fly in an ‘oversize coffin’.

The Glider Pilot Regiment served with distinction at D-Day, Arnhem and the Rhine Crossing. Several of those who were killed on operations. Staff Sergeant Roy Luff, 23 and from Buckland, was a member of the 1st Wing of the Glider Pilot Regiment. He was killed on 6 June 1944 – D-Day – and is buried in Ranville War Cemetery, Normandy. Staff Sergeant Leonard Gardner was also a member of 1st Wing. A native of Portsmouth and 27, he was killed on 17 September 1944: the first day of Operation Market. His Glider, carrying Royal Engineers, disintegrated in the sky over England. He is buried in Weston-super-Mare Cemetery.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about Portsmouth Glider Pilots is that one of the Gliders they flew in action was designed in Portsmouth – the Airspeed Horsa. The Airspeed Company had a factory at Portsmouth Airport. You can see Horsa Gliders at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, Airborne Assault at Duxford, the Army Air Corps Museum at Middle Wallop and the Assault Glider Trust at RAF Shawbury.

A Horsa Glider taking off

A Horsa Glider taking off

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Filed under Airborne Warfare, Army, Museums, portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, World War Two

The dilemma of Military Museums

I regularly keep an eye on quite a few jobsites, especially ones concerning Museums. I guess you could say a job working at a Military Museum would be my dream. Just recently, I noticed a job advertised for Director of a well-known British Army unit’s Museum. It makes very interesting reading indeed.

Qualifications and Experience: Detailed and up to date knowledge of the Army and Royal Signals in particular, including military communications and their significance to the command and control of operations.

Now, it strikes me that the only person likely to have that kind of experience is going to be a retired officer!

Both the Royal Marines Museum and the RN Submarine Museum have raised eyebrows recently by appointing non-service types to senior posts. Previously, the unwritten rule was that to have any chance of being Director of a military museum, you had to be a former serving sailor, soldier or airman. This doesnt just apply to senior posts, but all posts down to shop cashier sometimes. Its a real ‘jobs-for-the-boys’ thing.

While I see nothing wrong with giving jobs to people who have served the country, I do question the wisdom of keeping such institutions as a closed shop. A narrow and exclusive recruitment policy severely limits the experience, expertise and dynamism that will be found in the museum. Neither does it reflect the realities of running a Museum – what is a retired officer likely to know about applying for grant funding, formal and informal learning, or community outreach?

A young person who has just graduated with a Degree or a Masters might not be wearing the Regimental tie, and they might not know the Regimental March, but such things can be learnt. Also, they are more likely to bring new, fresh ideas to the table. Some Military Museums have grasped the bull by the horns and appointed people who have expertise in marketing and heritage in a broader sense, which is remarkably foresighted for a sector of the Heritage industry that is usually remarkably insular and conservative.

Especially at a time when Museums are facing many changes and challenges, and are having to re-examine their policies and priorities in the face of funding challenges and a depressed economic situation. It is not a time to rest on laurels or to try and preserve the status quo.

Maybe 20 years ago it was OK to bung a load of uniforms in a glass case and leave them there. But in the twentieth century the visiting public, and indeed the Regiments and units that the Museums are dedicated to, deserve a lot better. Regiments and their history have so much to contribute to society – there are plenty of ways that they can complement the national curriculum, for example.

The link between Armed Forces and general public is absolutely crucial, as shown by the recent growth of interest in charities such as Help for Heroes, and the attendances at Wootton Basett for repatriations from Afghanistan. Museums SHOULD have a role in this, as a place for people to find out about the armed forces, and for the armed forces to meet and inspire people. But apart from a few notable cases, in a lot places this doesnt really seem to be happening.


Filed under debate, Museums

Fort Nelson revamp goes off with a bang

A £2 million revamp of Fort Nelson, near Portsmouth, got off to an explosive start yesterday.

The Fort, home of the Royal Armouries collection of Artilley and Cannons, is a nineteenth century Palmerston fort, on the crest of Portsdown Hill.

The first phase involved the demolition of a post-war cottage, in fitting fashion by a Sexton armoured vehicle.

The demolition is the first stage of a major revamp at the Royal Armouries Museum – home to the national collection of artillery and historic cannon – and will see enhanced visitor facilities, galleries and state-of-the-art education facilities.

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Filed under Architecture, Army, Museums, News, videos

Time Team

(l-r) Tony Robinson, Phil Harding, Mick Aston

(l-r) Tony Robinson, Phil Harding, Mick Aston

Unless you’ve lived on a different planet for the past 15 years, you can’t fail but to have seen the hugely popular archaeology TV show, Time Team. It can be seen on Channel 4, and repeats on the Discovery Channel.

First broadcast in 1994, it showcases a team of archaeologists and associated experts as they go about investigating archaeological sites. The real crux of the programme is that they supposedly have only three days to carry out the dig. In fact much of the work is done before and after the three days. They have investigated everything from Paleolithic, Neolithic, Roman, Saxon, Medieval and Industrial Revolution through to second world war sites. They have also produced programmes on excavations in America and the Carribean.

The show is presented by Tony Robinson, of Blackadder fame. As well as an acomplished actor, he’s also got an enthusiasm for archaeology. The main expert is Professor Mick Aston, a nutty professor if ever there was one, with shocks of clown-like hair and day-glo stripey jumpers. Historian Robin Bush used to cover the research side of things, and proved to be unlike many archivists in that he actually had a personality. The show also uses some fascinating geophysical survey technology.

The real gem of the series has to be Phil Harding. Like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel and with the broad wessex accent to match, he is a dirt archaeologist and is always getting involved in the re-enactments and reconstructions. With long hair and short shorts, hes quite a character.

Time Team usually get involved with the local community. I have to admit to being a bit disappointed, however, when earlier this summer they carried out an excavation in Portsmouth and cosied up with Portsmouth Grammar School. Why not invite some less privileged young people who might not normally get that kind of opportunity?

Time Team has made a lasting impact on British archaeology. The archaeologists involved with Time Team have published more scientific papers on excavations carried out in the series than all British university archaeology departments put together over the same period.

A lot of the establishment figures have never been to happy about Time Team, reasoning that it dumbs down archaeology, and no doubt they dont like anything that interests normal people. As someone who thinks that it is the right of anyone and everyone to be interested in history, this smacks of elitism. If these authority figures really loved their subject, then they would be glad that people find an interest in it.

If you dont like people being enthusiastic about history, go and work in a factory.


Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, debate, Industrial Revolution, Local History, Medieval history, Museums, On TV, social history

Victoria Cross Heroes – Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson

The Victoria Cross is the highest award for Gallantry that any British or Commonwealth Serviceman or woman can receive. It is always awarded first at any ceremony, and always the first medal worn. And with apologies to the Medal of Honour and the Iron Cross, there really is something special about that crimson ribbon and dark metal pattee cross. It has a history and a mystique all of its own. Go to a Museum where they have VC’s on show, and gaze through the gleaming glass at those hallowed medals, and try and argue that they are ‘just a lump of metal’.

Created in the Crimean War to recognise brave and heroic acts by all sailors, soldiers – and later airmen – regardless of class, rank or creed, in recent years it has become harder and harder to earn. This is shown by how many of them are awarded Posthumously, after the recipient has died in action. Of the two awarded for the Falklands War, both Sergeant Ian McKay and Lieutenant-Colonel H Jones were killed in Action. Corporal Bryan Budd was also killed winning his VC in Afghanistan. Only Private Johnson Beharry, in Iraq, has survived to receive his award in person in recent conflicts. And even then, he suffered terrible brain damage in the process. There are also countless stories of men being nominated for VC’s, but in the long process they were awarded a more minor medal.

It has occured to me more and more that although we are fully aware of some of the more famous VC winners – Guy Gibson, Leonard Cheshire, and of course the famous action at Rorkes Drift. But what of the hundreds of other recipients who did amazing things, but that we dont hear about?

So, starting now I’m going to take a periodic delve into the London Gazette’s records of Victoria Cross Citations, and look at some unsung holders of the Victoria Cross. This week we look at Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson.

Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson was the flight engineer in a Lancaster detailed to attack Schweinfurt on the night of 26th April, 1944. Suddenly it was attacked by a fighter at about 20,000 feet. A fire started near a petrol tank on the upper surface of the starboard wing, between the fuselage and the inner engine. Sergeant Jackson received shell splinters in the right leg and shoulder. Recovering himself, he remarked that he could deal with the fire on the wing and obtained his captain’s permission to try to put out the flames. With a fire extinguisher and parachute, he started to climb out of the cockpit and back along the top of the fuselage to the starboard wing. Before he could leave the fuselage his parachute pack opened and the whole canopy and rigging lines spilled into the cockpit. Undeterred, Sergeant Jackson continued. The pilot, bomb aimer and navigator gathered the parachute together and held on to the rigging lines, paying them out as the airman crawled aft. Eventually he slipped and, falling from the fuselage to the starboard wing, grasped an air intake on the leading edge of the wing. He succeeded in clinging on but lost the extinguisher, which was blown away. By this time, the fire had spread rapidly and Sergeant Jackson was involved. His face, hands and clothing were severely burnt. Unable to retain his hold he was swept through the flames and over the trailing edge of the wing, dragging his parachute behind. When last seen it was only partly inflated and was burning in a number of places. Realising that the fire could not be controlled, the captain gave the order to abandon aircraft. Four of the remaining members of the crew landed safely. The captain and rear gunner died. Sergeant Jackson was unable to control his descent and landed heavily. He sustained a broken ankle, his right eye was closed through burns and his hands were useless. This airman’s attempt to extinguish the fire and save the aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands was an act of outstanding gallantry. To venture outside, when travelling at 200 miles an hour, at a great height and in intense cold, was an almost incredible feat.

Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson VC

Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson VC


Filed under Afghanistan, Falklands War, Iraq, Museums, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, World War Two

Trafalgar flag – for the nation?

HMS Achille, Spartiates sister ship

HMS Achille, Spartiate's sister ship

The last known surviving Union Jack flown in battle by the Royal Navy at Trafalgar is expected to sell for £15,000 at auction. The jack was flown from the flagstaff of HMS Spartiate. After the battle on 21 October 1805 it was presented to one of the ships officers, and his family and ancestors have kept it safe until now.

Charles Miller, who is selling the flag in London on Trafalgar Day, October 21, said: “We believe it is the only existing flag that flew at Trafalgar. It is one of the most important historical items any collector could expect to handle. The damage is probably from bullet holes or splinter fragments, but despite this it is in amazing condition.”

HMS Spartiate was a 74 gun ship of the line, built and launched by the French. In 1798 she fought at the Battle of the Nile, and was captured by the British. As was the custom at the time she was repaired and commissioned into the Royal Navy, complete with the same name, and fought at Trafalgar.

In my opinion, something of this importance should not be allowed to get anywhere near private collectors, who would puchase it out of extravagance and keep it for their own gratification. It would far more appropriately be donated to the National Maritime Museum or the Royal Naval Museum, where anyone and everyone could go and see it. Or, god forbid, it might even end up leaving the country. Museums, with their rigid funding, simply cannot compete against wealthy individuals.

Should there be laws to protect items of national importance from being squirreled away, or leaving the country altogether?


Filed under debate, maritime history, Museums, Napoleonic War, Navy, News

Military Museums – at a crossroads?

Airborne Assault at Duxford

Airborne Assault at Duxford

Think of a military museum, and most people’s images will be of row upon row of cases, full of medals, uniforms, weapons, and overly-deferential tributes to a regiments old boys. And, frankly, rather boring to most people.

There are good reasons for how this situation came about. Most regimental or corps museums were established and cared for by the Regiment in question. Partly to preserve their espirit-du-corps, and to provide new recruits with a sense of the units special heritage. Whats more, usually the managers, curators, even shop cashiers are ex-army. Whilst the old-boys network of giving old soldiers a job is admirable, it often means that a museum has a very narrow outlook that is one-way, and does not take into acount any wider thinking, or do enough to meet the public halfway. Any museum needs to be fully aware of the society that it is trying to engage with. It is no longer enough to put up displays then sniff that people dont look at them. Over-protective and possessive curators are by no means limited to military museums, but the military-civilian distinction blurs matters further.

But now the priority has changed. With a real need to educate and inform the wider public about the role of the military, it is no longer enough to simply put objects in a case and let people look at them. They need to be interepreted, brought to life. And in the digital age, when childen are used to wiis, xboxes and iphones, there is a whole range of technology out there to enthuse and entertain.

The brand new Airborne Assault Museum at Duxford is a great example. The old Airborne Forces museum in Aldershot had a fine collection, but was in a very off-putting location. By the time the Paras moved to Colchester it was definitely showing its age. Not only that, but it was a Regimental museum in every sense of the word – here was a museum that held an internationally important collection of objects and documents, but effectively barriered them off from anyone looking at them.

When the site at Aldershot was sold, a real chance for change came up. And the solution was bold – why not find a truly accessible site? why does a regimental museum have to be at the HQ? The chosen site, the Imperial War Museum’s outpost at Duxford, was ideal – a complementary focus on war in the air, thousands of visitors a year, and a world renowned site.

The museum itself is revolutionary too. It takes the old, proud elements of a regimental museum, and combines them with the modern, technological strengths of a ‘civilian’ museum. But most importantly, the emphasis is on the relationship between the history and the visitor, both in participation and thought. It more than does its bit for informing the public about the role of Airborne Forces.

Several other military museums have gone this way, and not before time. Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich, and the Tank Museum at Bovington and the Royal Signals Museum at Blandford are examples of forward thinking, succesful military museums. But there are many more museums out there that probably havent changed in decades. Which is really sad, as there are probably legions of stories waiting to be told, and thousands of visitors waiting to be inspired. Many of them are staffed by volunteers, who must be admired.

The problem is an ideological one, that faces all museums. Are museums there to keep and protect, or to engage and involve? As it is our history, our military history, and us that the armed forces need to support them, the focus should be primarily on the public, without whom no museum could survive.


Filed under debate, Museums

£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

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

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

Family History #4 – WW1 Servicemen



Last time we looked at how you can find out about ancestors who served in the second world war, from 1939 to 1945. This time around, we’re going to go back even further, and find out about ancestors who served and fought in the first world war, between 1914 and 1918.

About 6 to 7 million men served in the British Army during the Great War. Unfortunately, many army service records between 1914 and 1920 do not exist as they were destroyed by German bombing in 1940. Only about 2 million survived. Therefore, you have about a 40% chance of finding any individual soldier’s records. Those that do survive can be viewed online at, for a fee of course.

As well as service records, there are a set of medal index cards held by the national archives, that record campaign and gallantry medals awarded to individual soldiers. These give you details of a persons regiment, where they served, and what medals they were entitled to.

As well as individual service records, if you know which regiment and/or battalion somebody served in, you can find that unit’s war diary online at the national archive’s website. These ae very detailed, giving information about the day-to-day activities of a unit. They tell us about the time the troops spent in the line, rest and recreation, and particular battles, often including combat reports and casualty lists. They add a lot of depth and colour to an individual service record.

For men who joined the Royal Navy up to 1923, which will include most men who served in the first world war, their service records can be obtained from the national archives website. These records are slightly more spartan than their army counterparts, and consist of a few basic personal details, and a list of ships and shore bases, dates and ranks. They also contain information about training courses, disciplinary action, and an annual assesment on the seaman’s conduct.

Once you have an idea of what ships a man served on, you can then go away and have a look in your local library for some books about particular ships and battles, or you could simply have a bit of a go on google. Naval History is well worth a look, as is battleships and cruisers.

The Royal Air Force wasn’t founded until 1918, but prior to this Royal Flying Corps men were part of the Army, and Royal Naval Air Service personnel served under the Royal Navy. These service records are all in the National Archives.

If your ancestor died during the war, their details will probably be found on the Commonwealth War Grave’s commissions website, where they have an online debt of honour register that you can search. Each entry details a serviceman’s basic details, unit, service number, age at death, date of death, often some information about the deceased’s family, and the location where the person is buried or commemorated. Any or these pieces of information may help you locate other information. It really is like piecing together a jigsaw.

It is also well worth checking out with any regimental museums, or the Royal Naval Museum or RAF Museum. The RN Submarine Museum also has a lot of information about submariners. Try looking on amazon too, most regiments or services have official history’s about their time during the first world war.

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Filed under Army, Museums, Navy, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, World War One

Family History #3 – WW2 servicemen

There must be very few people indeed who haven’t got at least one parent, grandparent or great-grandparent who served in the Armed Forces in the second world war. If you’re doing your family history, at some point you will probably come up against someone who served in the Army, Navy or Royal Air Force. Considering that this will have been a major event in most peoples lives, it makes sense to spent a lot of time and effort on researching this. Not only will it fill in a lot about your family history, but you will also find out a lot about yourself in the process.

Firstly, the National Archives have a brilliant set of Research Guides that tell you 99% of everything you might need to know. Put simply, if your ancestor is still alive, they can apply for their service record themselves. If they have passed away, you can apply, but with the permission of the closest surviving relative. You will need to fill out an application form and a certificate of kinship, available from the Veterans Agency website. This can take up to 6 months, and at the time of writing costs £30.

The information that you get from them varies widely. Army records are very thorough, covering joining up, units served, locations, disciplinary and medical issues, service overseas, wounds, time spent as a prisoner, and all manner of things. Naval records, on the other hand, usually simply consist of some brief personal details, a list of ships or shore bases, and dates. Also, its worth having a root around in the loft before you apply, as you may already have this information sat in a box or something!

Once you have this information, you can get onto the internet or down the library to find out what all those annoying abbreviations mean, and where certain units served. Think of the service record as a skeleton, and then you find out other stuff to put flesh on the bones and fill in the gaps. Bookwise, there are some excellent guides by Simon Fowler, William Spencer, Brian Davis, George Forty, and Brian Lavery has written some very good books on Naval ships and shore bases. If your ancestor was an officer, they will also be in the Army List or the Navy list, which may be in your local library.

You can also get hold of war diaries or ships logs for most units. These are held in the National Archives at Kew, and give more details about what a Battalion or a ship was doing on a day to day basis. The war diary for my Grandads Battalion told me when he’d been given leave! Ships logs are not quite so detailed, and mainly contain navigational details.

If your ancestor died, they will be on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s online debt of honour register.

If your ancestor was a prisoner of war, you can apply for their POW records from the International Red Cross. This will tell you what camps they were held in and when.

Other places that may be helpful are Regimental Museums, the National Army Museum, the Royal Naval Museum, the Imperial War Museum and the Royal Air Force Museum.

Also, dont rule out just doing a bit of a google, you never know what you might find!

Finally, if you are a bit confused or want some help, feel free to give me a shout. Or, if you’re very keen, you could come along to one of my talks on ‘what my family did during the war’ – check out the ‘my talks’ page for details. You could also have a look at my article ‘researching a red beret’ in the February 2009 issue of Britain at War magazine, and I have a similar issue on researching Royal Navy ancestors that will hopefully be published soon!


Filed under Army, Family History, Museums, Navy, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, World War Two