Tuesday 25 March 2014

Vintage Chicago film found at estate sale shows 1940s-era city

Vintage Chicago Film Found at Estate Sale Shows 1940s-era City

The subject of this post sounds like something my aunt and uncle would find during their numerous trawls of estate sales, or a treasure we could only dream of unearthing in the far rarer house clearances that occur with much less frequency in Britain.

It's a constant source of amazement to me that films such as this can turn up in the most unlikeliest of places decades after they were shot, capturing the attention of people - social historians, nostalgists, you, me - that the makers (and those who appeared on the screen) could never have even imagined.  But they do, as this latest example so amply demonstrates, and I for one am continually grateful for the fact.  How many historical gems have lain - and continue to lay - forgotten and undiscovered in the corner of a dusty archive, or nearly been thrown away (or worse, actually thrown away), all because of a vague/wrong label?

This could have been the case here (and likely would have been, had it occurred in this country) had the canister containing the film not been snapped up by a curious Chicagoan.  It is perhaps not surprising that the new owner showed such an interest in it since, in one of those serendipitous incidents that sometimes occur, the chap is a young film & video technician.  I'll bet even he never expected to uncover an amazing portal to Chicago 70 years ago, though, and neither did anybody else judging by the negligible amount of money he ended up paying for it!

The contents have proved to be of far greater historical value, however, containing as they do over thirty minutes' footage of mid-Forties Chicago - everywhere from the usual tourist haunts to the less-visited working districts.  It is a wonderful time capsule of what still remains "a city of beauty, strength and power" and a glorious glimpse of a time past; so unusual that even the Chicago Film Archives and the Chicago Board of Education (for whom the original film was made) are having trouble finding a record of it.

Regardless of whether the reasons become known as to why this film was shot and how it stayed undiscovered for so, it is splendid to see it again in all its glory and to know that it will be appreciated as a snapshot of history.  Once again, it makes you wonder just what else is out there waiting to be found!

Friday 21 March 2014

Threepenny bit design to replace vulnerable £1 coin

Threepenny bit design to replace vulnerable £1 coin

As my UK-based readers will doubtless be aware, Wednesday saw the Chancellor of the Exchequer deliver the government's annual Budget for the year ahead.  Rightly or wrongly the item that garnered the most press attention was the unveiling of a proposed new £1 coin, to replace the existing 30-year-old design in 2017.  Putting aside the politics, the news is nonetheless interesting on a number of levels. 

Firstly, this is the most comprehensive redesign of a frequently-used piece of British currency in almost a generation.  You have to go back to the early/mid-1990s and the resizing of the 5p, 10p (1992) and 50p (1997) coins to find the last time the money in our pocket was so drastically altered.  From that point of view alone it is of course a newsworthy subject and one of the main aspects most news agencies have focussed on.

For numismatists (that's our code-speak for us coin collectors!) like myself there is an extra layer of excitement since it means that the old £1 coin will become even more of a collectors item from 2017.  The general excitement of a coin undergoing such a sea change is also heightened, since we value the behind-the-scenes processes, history and time-honoured traditions attached to the coin and its design(s).

The biggest change (pun not intended!) however, the thing that has got we nostaligists (and the press) jumping up and down in excitement, is the switch to a twelve-sided (that's dodecagonal, in case you're wondering) shape - just like one of Britain's old pre-decimal coins, the threepence piece!  The one pound coin is already similar in size and thickness to the old threepenny, so this major alteration will render it even more like a coin that hasn't been seen in British pockets for over 40 years. 


The twelve-sided brass threepenny was introduced in 1937 at the start of George VI's reign (twelve pre-production examples were minted with Edward VIII details; the whereabouts of six of these are unknown and one recently sold for £30,000, so keep an eye out!).  Prior to that point, the threepence was a silver coin, very small - less than the size of a modern 5p (or a dime) - hence its nickname, the "thruppenny bit".  Created in 1547 under the reign of Edward VI, by the 1930s its diminutiveness meant it was becoming unpopular in England (although less so in Scotland) and in 1937 the new, larger and heavier nickel-brass threepenny was introduced (although paradoxically it retained its original nickname).

Silver threepennies continued to be produced, albeit in far fewer numbers, alongside the new brass variety from 1937 to 1945 (again, if you find a 1945 silver thruppence hang on to it, for almost all of that year's production was later melted down).  Technically they are still minted today, for use in Maundy money.   The newer twelve-sided coin was subsequently produced every year from its creation in 1937 until just before decimalisation, in 1967 (with some proof sets minted in 1970; rare dates are 1946 and 1948-51).  It, along with the other pre-decimal coinage, ceased to be legal tender in 1971.  George VI examples feature three thrift plants on the reverse (which I must admit I prefer); Elizabeth II variants switched to a Tudor portcullis.


Now, though, the brass threepenny is due to live on in spirit as the inspiration for the new 2017 £1 coin.  While the new coin, as already mentioned, will bear more than a passing resemblance to its forebear it will of course feature a few modern design flourishes plus some not unimpressive security features.  Chief among these new touches is the bi-metallic construction, as already found on the £2 coin.  Advanced, British-designed technology by the name iSIS means the coin will be infused with some special coating (dermatologists can rest easy, it doesn't come off on the skin apparently) to combat counterfeiting - the bane of the existing £1.

Some differences then, a fair bit of modernity - but using a traditional design that by all accounts will be making a welcome return.  You and I can get involved as well, since there will be a competition in the summer to find a design for the reverse (tails) side of the new coin (keep checking The Royal Mint website).  Hmmn, have to put my thinking cap on, I reckon!  In the meantime, I've dug out my old coin collection in order to reacquaint myself with this charming coin, in anticipation of its spiritual successor's arrival in three years' time.

**Do you like the new £1 coin?  What do you think should go on the reverse side?  Let me know your thoughts below!**

Sunday 16 March 2014

WW2 plane to be restored to glory in Concorde hangar

 WW2 plane to be restored to glory in Concorde hangar

Yet another worthy - if slightly convoluted - aircraft restoration project is the subject of this interesting article from the B.B.C, featuring a transatlantic variant of a now-rare World War Two British bomber.

The Bristol Blenheim can trace its origins back to 1935 and a Daily Mail-sponsored specification for a high-speed business aircraft.  The Bristol Aeroplane Company responded with the Type 142, which first flew on the 12th April 1935.  Not only did it meet the requirements of Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere as the fastest civilian aeroplane in Europe, it was also found to be considerably faster than any fighter 'plane then in service with the Royal Air Force!  As a result the RAF quickly moved to have Bristol create a fighter-bomber version, which became the Blenheim MkI.

Blenheims consequently formed part of the backbone of both Fighter and Bomber Command in the early years of the war, although even by 1939 they were outclassed by newer fighters like the Spitfire and Messerschmitt 109.  Nevertheless they performed many vital, if now largely forgotten, roles in the first three years of the conflict.  Blenheims were the first British aircraft to cross the German coast following the declaration of war.  They formed part of the Free French Air Force after the fall of France.  During the Battle of Britain they undertook bombing and reconnaissance raids on German airfields, often sustaining high casualties.  When the Blitz began, Blenheims fitted with radar became night-fighters to battle the German bombers.  The aircraft eventually served in several theatres of war including North Africa and the Middle & Far East, over time evolving into new designs including the Beaufort torpedo-bomber and the Beaufighter.  It was also the basis for the aircraft featured here - the Bolingbroke.

RCAF Bristol Bolingbroke

The Bolingbroke was merely a variant of the Blenheim rather than an evolution - in fact the original Bolingbroke MkI was almost identical to the Blenheim MkIV.  The alterations to the Blenheim design by this stage had attracted the attention of the Royal Canadian Air Force, who were looking for a new aircraft to undertake the maritime patrol role.  Fairchild Canada was awarded the license to build under contract in Quebec and so the Bolingbroke was born.  From 1940-44 Bolingbrokes provided patrol bomber service on the Atlantic & Pacific coasts and were later mainstays of the the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

Bolingbroke wreck in a Manitoba scrapyard, 2006
After the cessation of hostilities the RAF scrapped its entire fleet of Blenheims.  The RCAF took a slightly different tack, as mentioned, and sold their surplus airframes for scrap - with local farmers taking advantage of the valuable aluminium, fuel and other parts (or, as in this case, for target practice!).  As it turns out this was something of a blessing in disguise for, while there are only 2 or 3 extant examples of original Blenheims left in the world, there are currently thirteen Bolingbrokes - in Belgium, the USA, UK, and Canada - four of which (including this one) are undergoing restoration either to original or Blenheim specification.

The difficulty in restoring such a rare aeroplane is made apparent in the article, but I have no doubt the team at the Bristol Aero Collection will do a good thorough job in bringing Bolingbroke 9048 back to fighting trim.  In the same hanger where Concorde was constructed, no less!  It's splendid to see yet more dedication from aviation enthusiasts and museum volunteers, as well as the sporting assistance of Rolls-Royce; I'm sure 9048 will sit proudly alongside Concorde and the other exhibits at the Collection as a testament to the men who flew Blenheims and Bolingbrokes.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

British teen's 1914 diary from Paris brought to life on Twitter


British teen's 1914 diary from Paris brought to life on Twitter

Hello All!  Well, another busy start to the month has seen ten days fly by but now here I am again with a new post.  I say "new" but the subject was first reported on as far back as January-February.

The 100-year old diary of Olive Higgins, a teenage girl from Kent studying in Paris, has recently come to light after over ten years in the possession of a London journalist & writer, who spent that time researching the girl's tragically short life following the discovery that they both happened to come from the same area. 

Margate girl Olive Higgins' diary put online at 100th anniversary of death

To celebrate the centenary of Olive's writings the journalist, Rob McGibbon, came up with the splendid idea of publishing the daily entries on Twitter (@OlivesDiary1914) - as well as creating a website with every day reproduced in full as well as further information about Olive Higgins, her family and how Mr McGibbon came to be interested.

The diary and the project it inspired have a poignant ending, however.  Barely two months in to her Paris adventure Olive Higgins was struck down by double influenza and sadly died on the 25th February.  Consequently her diary entries stop halfway through that month, as she struggled to recover.

Nevertheless her record of those first few weeks in Paris make for fascinating reading - a real insight into the thoughts of a 16-year-old student one hundred years ago, yet revealing teenage feelings and insecurities still familiar a century on.  Mr McGibbon's project has certainly been a worthwhile one not only from his personal point of view but also as a valuable piece of social history and a fitting & timely tribute to Olive Higgins' life.

Sunday 2 March 2014

Lancaster bombers to fly together on UK summer tour

Lancaster bombers to fly together on UK summer tour

More Bomber Command commemoration news now, and this one is exciting almost beyond words (well, I'll try anyway)!

The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight has been thrilling airshow crowds and remembrance parades around the country for decades and the undisputed jewel in its crown is the Avro Lancaster bomber PA474.  Joining the Flight in 1973 it has become a much-loved feature; one of only two airworthy examples left in the world it is highly valued in its own right.

Avro Lancaster Mk X FM213
"Mynarski Memorial"
of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum
The other Lanc in flying condition - FM213 - performs a similar office for the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Ontario, having been rescued from the scrapheap by The Royal Canadian Legion in 1978 (and restored to airworthiness by 1988).  A familiar sight on the North American display circuits the Canadian-built FM213 was, like PA474, completed just too late to see service in World War II - spending 20 years with the RCAF's Maritime Air Command Search & Rescue division.

Canada's Lancaster bomber to cross Atlantic for U.K. tour

Avro Lancaster B I PA747 "City of Lincoln" of the BBMF
Now in a series of special one-off events FM213 and PA474 are scheduled to meet in the skies of Britain this summer in what is rightly being billed as a "once-in-a-lifetime event".  For the first time in 60 years two Avro Lancasters will fly together over two weeks in August (including, I note, my birthday - hmmnn, now there's an idea...!).

The CWHM will fly its Lancaster, in stages, across the Atlantic to meet up with the BBMF at RAF Coningsby.  That in itself is more than worthy of comment, since a Lancaster has not undertaken an Atlantic crossing since 1975 and we should remember that we are talking about a near 70-year-old machine here!  Just that flight alone will be testament to the aircraft's durability and the hard work of the museum engineers who work strenuously to keep this wonderful aeroplane flyable (the same can be said, of course, for PA474 and the BBMF).

Avro Lancaster B VII NX611 "Just Jane"
of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre
Once FM213 has made it across and is checked over a number of displays and events are planned for that second fortnight in August.  Flypasts with the BBMF will commence on the 14th August with a series of as-yet unspecified shows to follow.  A tour of the country seems to be suggested; hopefully we shall know more nearer the time.  A visit to the taxiing Lanc undergoing restoration in Lincolnshire, perhaps (three of them, albeit on the ground, would surely be a sight to see)?  Hopefully a show near you will see both bombers in the air together.  Furthermore if you live near the Humberside Airport and have £3,500 going spare you can even pay to have a flight in one of the Lancasters (£7,000 for a cockpit seat), which are due to take place on the 18th-20th and 26th-27th August.

All-in-all then this sounds like an absolutely amazing opportunity and a fantastic way to commemorate the numerous martial anniversaries that abound this year (WWI 100th, WWII 75th, Bomber Command etc.).  I very much hope to get a chance to see the two Lancs in formation together some time, somewhere, this August.  Watch and listen to the footage at the top of this post, then try to imagine two (or even three if NX611 is involved!) instead of one - what a beautiful sight (and sound!) that will be!


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