Saturday 31 October 2020

Scary Words, Scary Tune

With this blog very much back up and running again I think it's time for another selection of topical tunes to celebrate that especially spooky time of year - All Hallow's Eve!  In fact, looking back at this blog's post history it seems to have been a frankly astonishing (and almost unacceptable) 8 years since I last did a Hallowe'en-themed entry, so let's put that to rights right now with the following five frightening refrains from the terrifying Twenties and thrilling Thirties.     


We kick off with British bandleader Jack Hylton & His Orchestra and their 1929 recording Bogey Wail.  One of four sides the band cut on the very un-Hallowe'en date of the 13th February 1929 it features a common motif of the time in the form of the Bogeyman, the æthereal monster hiding under the bed/ in the cupboard and which has scared the pants off generations of children around the world for centuries.  This particular recently-uploaded video features some very well done period-style animation which just adds to the overall eeriness of the song.  


Jumping forward eight years and something slightly different but no less scary is lurking in the cupboard in this next tune, consummately performed by another great of the British dance band era, Nat Gonella & His Georgians.  The Skeleton In The Cupboard was originally recorded a year earlier by Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra for the 1936 Bing Crosby film Pennies From Heaven.  The title song rightly went on to become a jazz standard, subsequently recorded by multiple artists over the years, but in the process left the likes of The Skeleton In The Cupboard slightly forgotten - an oversight I'm happy to try to rectify by including Nat Gonella's bouncy version here. 


From Bogeymen to skeletons to zombies next in this 1934 recording by the now obscure American dance band leader Gene Kardos.  With his orchestra Kardos actively recorded from 1931 until 1938 (with vocalists including Dick Robertson and Bea Wain) at which point he "retired" and went to work for the New York City postal department(!) while at the same time performing in a small Hungarian restaurant in the Manhattan suburb of Yorkville.  Cut on the 26th June 1934, Zombie is an early example of the term appearing in musical form and was allegedly inspired by the pre-Code 1932 Bela Lugosi horror film White Zombie.  

Another forgotten American band leader features in this next song from 1930, written, composed and performed by Wayne King and His Orchestra.  Known at the height of his fame from 1931 to 1940 as "the Waltz King" after his most favoured variety of jazz he slowly faded into obscurity after the early 1960s and although he continued to perform at various venues around America right up to the 1980s he had by then, like Gene Kardos, gone into "early retirement" from the music scene and in between appearances ran a cattle farm and car rental business from his Savanna, Illinois home.  Swamp Ghosts is a wonderfully typical example of early 1930s creepy jazz, helped along in this video by some fittingly ghostly images!

For the final tune in this post we return to Britain and another top band leader of the 1930s, Roy Fox and His Orchestra, with their 1934 offering The House Is Haunted.  Sung by the equally-noted (and brilliantly named!) British vocalist Denny Dennis it is actually really more of a romantic ballad, as the lyrics suggest, but teamed with some superbly spine-chilling footage from the 1922 film Nosferatu it earns its place here as a suitably supernatural offering.

source - Wikipædia
Well there we have it then - five spooktacular songs from the 1920s and '30s to hopefully help your Hallowe'en go with a swing.  I hope you all have as enjoyable an All Hallow's Eve as it's possible to have in these trying times - do let me know what you have planned or what you got up to in the comments.  Noseferatu happens to be my favoured choice for the Partington-Plans' 2020 Hallowe'en showing although it's facing some stiff competition this year, with my fiancée pushing for Pride And Prejudice And Zombies (I'm still not sure myself...) or the 2019 animated remake of The Addams Family.  Maybe we'll end up doing a triple-bill, we'll have to see...

Thursday 29 October 2020

Historic Detroit Hotel elevator discovered during remodel in St. Petersburg, Florida

Historic Detroit Hotel elevator discovered during remodel in St. Petersburg, FL

On the face of it the headline of this article appears to be somewhat convoluted so let's begin by putting any confusion to bed and solving this apparent geographical jigsaw puzzle.

source - Tampa Bay Times
What we have here then is an 1890s-vintage elevator (or lift, as we call it on this side of the Pond) made by the Warner Elevator Company of Cincinnati, Ohio and which has recently been unearthed during the refurbishment of the Detroit Hotel - located not in Illinois but rather in St Petersburg.  Not the Russian city of St Petersburg though, but the town of St Petersburg in Florida.  All this confusion can be laid squarely at the door of the town's founders Peter Demens and John C. Williams, who as the article explains reached an agreement in 1888 to build the hotel as part of an important railway deal for the then new town.  Russian-born Demens, who was instrumental in bringing the railway to St Petersburg, gave the town its name in honour of his birthplace.  Williams, meanwhile, hailed from Detroit City and in exchange for buying the land from Demens decided to name the subsequent hotel after his home town.  I'm sure it all makes perfect sense to the native Floridans but, my word, they could have made it easier by just coming up with some original names!

Anyway, with the hope that that's at least partially cleared up any lingering misunderstanding (and not added to it) let's move on to the main discovery detailed in this article - and what a discovery it is!  It is nothing less than a fantastic find - a near 120-year old electrically-operated lift that has lain undisturbed for decades, boarded up and hidden behind some later remodelling work.  Now as part of some extensive works being carried out to turn the building into a steampunk-themed pub restaurant - an excellent and by the sounds of it welcome idea for the town - the original compartment, doors, motor and even cables (albeit long-since cut) have been uncovered by workmen brought in to gut the interior.  In addition many more early features were revealed during the renovations including an old staircase, fireplace, telephone switchboard complete with handwritten room numbers and even some sections of hand-painted wallpaper!

These revelations alone are remarkable for - as local historians have said - there is little left in St Petersburg of its early history, so a discovery such as this is especially significant and rightly of great importance to the town.  The unearthing of something on this scale is arguably of even greater scope than mere regional interest, for there cannot be that many buildings left in the world of such an age that are still hiding such wonderful gems and in America especially where something of this age is considered practically ancient it is a particularly noteworthy find.

source - Tampa Bay Times

I'm therefore delighted to see that not only have these incredible vestiges of the hotel's early years been found but that everyone involved in their rediscovery, from the owners to the contractors, recognise the importance of them and what is more are keen to incorporate them into the building's redesign.  Everything looks likely to be inventively saved in one form or another - the lift to be converted either into a private dining table or photo booth, the stairs kept on show as a centrepiece and even the wallpaper framed.  That the theme of the new venue is to be a steampunk one is indeed a splendidly fitting coincidence and has assured these valuable relics will be preserved for the people of St Petersburg to enjoy for years to come.  The whole project sounds most impressive and I look forward to seeing the end result; should I ever find myself in St Petersburg, Florida I would certainly make a point of visiting the finished eatery. 

Tuesday 27 October 2020

Couple restores antique sewing machine to make face masks

Back when we were still going through the first wave of Covid, but still pertinent today, come these two strikingly similar news items from either side of the Atlantic featuring the use of antique machinery in the fight against the spread of coronavirus.  In each case this involves the manufacture of homemade face masks - albeit with a vintage twist (of course!) in the form of traditional sewing machines being pressed into service to make them.  The stories are almost identical in fact, the only real differences being the geography and the fact that the second effort also benefits a local charity, with both even including the same machine - the ubiquitous 1920s-30s Singer.

To begin with the first article we head over the Pond to the town of Arvada in Colorado where Giselle Williams, the owner of a local business hit like so many by the pandemic, has taken advantage of a long-forgotten family heirloom and her husband's technical restoration abilities - not to mention his own sewing skills! - to produce face masks for not only the local community but for people around the world.  This previously dormant piece of equipment is nothing other than her great-great-grandmother's 1922 Singer Model 66 sewing machine, which until Covid struck had been languishing in the Williams' loft.  Now thanks to Mr Williams it has been given a new lease of life; dusted down, re-oiled and even fitted with an electric motor as so many old Singers subsequently were (like much old technology they were designed to be repaired and upgraded rather than thrown away and replaced) it is performing sterling service helping to make upwards of thirty masks a day alongside a more modern Juki machine.

source -
This is truly a heart-warming story in every respect - from the rediscovery of the century-old machine and its refurbishment by the husband, to his imparting the sewing skills he learnt from his own grandmother to his wife and the opportunity it has given both of them to provide a much-appreciated service to those near and far who have need of it, not to mention the chance to reconnect to their ancestors through a machine both of them would have used.  I'm very pleased to see them make such a success of the project and so be able to continue their business in an important new direction and I wish them well in their vintage-inspired endeavour!  

Back over in England now for the second equally heart-warming and remarkably parallel article, this time featuring two retired friends in Shropshire working together to provide face masks to local general stores in Wolverhampton, Bridgnorth and Telford with all proceeds from sales going to the Midlands Air Ambulance charity.  And just as with the Colorado business it is all being done with the aid of a near 100-year-old Singer sewing machine, in this case a 1934 Singer Model 127(?) that belonged to the mother of one of the ladies and which far from supplementing a more modern model actually ended up replacing the newer machine after it was unable to cope with the pace of production!  Now having far exceeded their original target of both face masks and charitable donations these two indomitable ladies are well on their way to continuing to churn out handmade masks for the local community, with the local air ambulance still standing to benefit.  Their sewing machine shows no signs of stopping either and with plans for Hallowe'en- and Christmas-inspired designs literally on the table this is another pop-up concern that seems destined for ongoing success and rightly so.  

Both these stories are a welcome reminder that old technology can still have its uses - sometimes over newer advancements and sometimes in partnership with them - especially in trying times such as these when it behoves us to all pull together and make good use of what equipment we have at our disposal.  I know for a fact that these two accounts are not rare occurrences, as my own mother has also been hard at work at her machine making masks for friends and family.  Until several years ago she also had a Singer of similar vintage to the Mmes. Harrison and Warrilow, which Dad had converted to electric pedal power, but alas it became to heavy and bulky for her to use comfortably so it was sent on to pastures new and replaced with a modern machine.  Judging by these two stories, however, I wouldn't be the least surprised if it is still out there somewhere working away happily - perhaps even helping to make a face mask or two!

Monday 26 October 2020

Black WW1 pilot's ID bracelet smashes estimate at Kent auction


With the BLM movement still very much at the forefront of people's minds these two interestingly linked articles are a welcome and timely reminder of the sacrifices made by black men and women for the cause of freedom in the many battles fought by the Commonwealth countries in support of the British war effort, in this case the stories of two Jamaicans who left their Caribbean home to fight in the First World War. 

William Robinson Clarke, c.1914
source - Wikipædia
The first report is of particular appeal inasmuch as it tells the story of an RFC sergeant pilot, William Robinson Clarke, who at the age of only 19 and out of his own pocket sailed to England to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps - in the process becoming what is thought to be the first black pilot to serve in that branch of the service.  Originally employed as a driver he retrained as a reconnaissance pilot in late 1916 and in April of 1917 was posted to No. 4 Squadron, based at Abeele in Belgium and operating the R.E.8.  The story of his time in the RFC is a fascinating one and I was pleased to note that he survived his run-in with five German scout aircraft and despite being wounded in the back made a full recovery - albeit subsequently only able to work as a mechanic - returning to Jamaica after the war to take up a building trade and eventually becoming the president of Jamaican branch of the Royal Air Force Association before passing away at the age of 86 in 1981.

source - B.B.C. News

Now his story has come fittingly into the limelight again thanks to the recent auctioning of his original RFC I.D. bracelet at - in of further interest to me personally - a local Kent auction.  Just what the link to Ashford is, or the reasons behind the sale, is not made clear.  It may just be that the owner had decided to sell and was based nearby, with the auctioneers being specialists in militaria.  Even so, their initial valuation of the bracelet seemed almost disgracefully low even by the conservative standards of most auction houses, so I am delighted to see that it sold for a much more respectable figure (over 30 times the estimate, in fact) and I hope whoever bought it appreciates it for the remarkable piece of black British military history that it represents (as I'm sure they must do to have paid such a sum for it).  I for one am grateful for it making the news as it has introduced me to the enthralling story of yet another World War One airman, as well has hopefully perpetuating his name and deeds far beyond the sphere of military or Jamaican historians.

The second article is of equal interest - and perhaps of even greater importance as it potentially has the scope to rewrite accepted First World War history that currently has Walter Tull as being the first black commissioned officer to serve in the British Army during the conflict.

2nd Lt. Euan Lucie-Smith, Royal Warwickshire Regiment
source - Eastbourne Herald

This is the story of another young Jamaican soldier, Euan Lucie-Smith, who enlisted in the Jamaica Artillery Militia in 1911 before shipping to England on the outbreak of war three years later to serve as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (a full three years before Walter Tull was gazetted into the Middlesex Regiment with the same rank).  Arriving in France in March, 1915 Lucie-Smith was sadly killed in action on the Western Front barely a month later on the 25th April at the age of 25. 

source - Eastbourne Herald
His story may also have remained forgotten had it not been for the chance discovery online of his memorial plaque (issued to the next-of-kin of all fallen soldiers in the First World War) by a military historian, James Carver.  Now it has been unearthed thanks to Mr Carver's efforts and, as well as adding an important record to the annals of black British martial history also has the tantalising possibility of completely revising it.  While it is regrettable to note how the plaque had languished, seemingly overlooked, for so long I am pleased to see its importance recognised and hope that when it comes up for auction next month it receives as much value and appreciation as William Robinson Clarke's I.D. bracelet.

Both of these stories are very poignant reminders of just how strong a pull the "mother country" had over its outlying colonies - in the First World War and in other conflicts before and since - and the strong urge and desire of their young men to leave their homes and travel thousands of miles to join up and "do their bit".  They are incredibly relevant and apposite at this time of racial inequality and it is to be hoped that both accounts will take their rightful places in the history books as a result of these finds, which I trust will be suitably respected and preserved for future generations.

Friday 23 October 2020

Colonel March of Scotland Yard

We stay with Talking Pictures TV for this next post (indeed one could easily base an entire blog around that splendid channel, such is the appeal of their excellent vintage-centric output, but perhaps that is a project for another time and place...) as their schedules also recently included an obscure 1950s British B-movie that really appealed to me and which - suitably in the run-up to Hallowe'en - starred one of the greatest horror film stars of the 1930s and '40s, Boris Karloff.

source - IMDb
This little gem amongst gems is Colonel March Investigates, an 80-minute feature made in 1953 with Karloff in a rare non-villainous role as the titular Colonel March, the debonair head of Section D.3 of Scotland Yard - otherwise known as the Department of Queer Complaints (and one of the things that hasn't aged so well of course, these days sounding more like the name of a Channel 4 medical documentary(!).  I keep mistakenly calling it the Department of Queer Goings-On, which at least sounds slightly better to my mind).

Colonel March Investigates was in fact a series of three pilot episodes of a new TV series, Colonel March of Scotland Yard, commissioned with an eye for the then soon-to-be-launched British commercial channel ITV, spliced together into a feature-length film (with extra mid-story scenes of Karloff added in to link the stories together) that was also shown in cinemas.  In each case, Colonel March sets out to solve a set of seemingly impossible mysteries - Hot Money sees him investigate a bank robbery where the money disappears after the thief is seen entering a solicitor's office; Death in the Dressing Room involves the strange murder of a Javanese nightclub dancer and The New Invisible Man sees murder committed by a pair of disembodied gloves!  

These initial episodes were originally shot in 1952 following Karloff's return to England from Hollywood earlier that year, his horror film heyday behind him.  At 65 and beginning to suffer from emphysema as a result of a heavy smoking habit Karloff was looking for an interesting yet undemanding project, plus the chance to settle back in his home country, and was attracted to the role and the opportunity to work for a London-based TV studio.  It can be seen from his on-form performance that he clearly relished playing the part of the be-tweeded, eyepatch-wearing (for which no reason is ever given) Colonel - Karloff is a joy to watch, mixing his trademark levels of subtle menace and sinisterness with a wonderful degree of enthusiasm, mysticality, decency and gallantry.  Despite his advancing years and health problems Karloff still enters into the spirit of things with aplomb - there are several incidences of what for the time could easily be termed action sequences and Colonel March even carries a swordstick umbrella such as another later TV hero sports!  Indeed in many ways Colonel March of Scotland Yard could be seen as a sort of forerunner to The Avengers, with in both cases our debonair protagonists investigating strange and outlandish occurrences.

Cecil Street, Carr's inspiration for the
character of Colonel March
The character of Colonel March was the creation of the American mystery writer John Dickson Carr who wrote The Department of Queer Complaints in 1940 under the nom-de-plume of Carter Dickson, one of several pseudonyms he used for the many different detective stories he would write between 1930 and 1971.  Generally regarded as one of the best of the "Golden Age" detective novelists and the master of the "locked room mystery", the Anglophile Carr set most of his stories in England and based some of his creations on real-life acquaintances or other contemporary crime characters (Dr Gideon Fell, for example, was directly influenced by G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown).  The character of Colonel March was inspired by Carr's friend, former Army officer and fellow mystery writer Cecil Street (who also wrote under the aliases of John Rhode, Miles Burton and Cecil Wayne among others).  Regrettably much of both Carr's and Street's work has now been long out of print and is therefore difficult (and therefore expensive!) to come by, which is a great pity especially as I have now a desire to read The Department of Queer Complaints and maybe a few others.  Both authors have however had a couple of their stories reprinted recently as part of the British Library's excellent Crime Classics series, which includes Street's 1930 offering The Secret of High Eldersham (which I have read) and 1936's Death in the Tunnel (which I haven't) along with the first three of Carr's novels - It Walks By Night, The Lost Gallows and Castle Skull.  Some more reading material to be on the lookout for then, at any rate!  

Although the first three pilots of Colonel March of Scotland Yard were made in July 1952 it was not until a year later in 1953 that the series was finally given the green light by ITV executives, with Karloff again returning to England from America where he had been continuing to appear on TV, film and radio.  Even so it was only in September 1955 that the series finally premiered on British television following the launch of ITV that year -  and then just in the London area where it was first available.  Later broadcasts followed when ITV Midlands began in February 1956 - the same time that U.S. broadcasts started - and even B.B.C. viewers were not left out, with the feature-length Colonel March Investigates being shown in September of that year.

Sadly only one 26-episode series of Colonel March of Scotland Yard was made; on release it garnered largely negative reviews (perhaps somewhat coloured by the general antagonism many people had at the time towards the new-fangled "commercial" television channel) with only Karloff's stand-out performance receiving any positive comment.  Today it seems rightly regarded as something of a [forgotten] cult classic, with good reviews on the likes of IMDb.  As well as having Boris Karloff in the lead role many episodes feature the great and the good of British, American & Canadian TV and film from the 1950s and beyond including Christopher Lee, Dana Wynter, Joan Sims, John Laurie, Richard Wattis, Patrick Barr, Patricia Owens and Hugh Griffith.  Karloff is also ably supported by Ewan Roberts as the sceptical, put-upon Scottish Inspector Ames and Eric Pohlmann as March's opposite number Goron of the French Sûreté.  The three episodes that form Investigates were also directed by Cy Endfield, who would later go on to do Hell Drivers and Zulu in the 1960s.

Certainly I have been thoroughly enjoying both the film and any episodes I have been able to lay my hands on.  I'm told all 26 are on Amazon Prime, if that's your sort of thing, but for now I am happily making do with the nine episodes that are currently available on YouTube.  I can heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys a bit of Fifties TV mystery drama in the mould of The Twilight Zone and now have another new hero in the form of Colonel March, head of Department D.3, Scotland Yard - the Department of Queer Complaints!

***Colonel March Investigates is available to buy on DVD and will be shown again on TPTV weekly from Saturday 7th November 2020 at 5pm (and which they previously ran daily at 7:30pm a few years ago).  Coincidentally a new illustrated reference book - Colonel March of Scotland Yard: The Series - has also recently been published and seems to be well worth a look.***

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Stop, Look, Listen... And Take Heed!

The excellent nostalgia TV channel Talking Pictures TV, about which I blogged previously on the occasion of its 5th birthday, very often as mentioned shows short archive documentary films and amateur cinefilm - usually between 10 and 30 minutes' duration - in association with the likes of the Imperial War Museum and the British Film Institute.  Recently it has started broadcasting some quaint motoring-related shorts from the 1940s and '50s, some linked to the forthcoming 100th anniversary of the original Austin 7 motor car which was first introduced in 1922 (and which I can hardly believe will shortly be celebrating its centenary, having also blogged about it on the occasion of its 90th birthday).  One that particularly caught my fancy and which has [partly, along with Mim's recent review of a TPTV-aired feature 80,000 Suspects over on Crinoline Robot] inspired this post is the captivating and entertaining (in more ways than one) road safety film from 1947 entitled It Happened Today.

While in places it hasn't dated well (especially Patrick Holt's narration, which has suffered somewhat from 70 years of change and the many pastiches from the likes of comedians such as Harry Enfield) this just adds to its overall charm in my book and it remains a fascinating early example of its type.  One particularly interesting area it focuses on is the then still-new concept of the unsignalised pedestrian crossing, complete with Belisha beacons but yet to feature the now-familiar black-and-white stripes that gave rise to its more common alternative name - the zebra crossing.  

A Belisha Beacon crossing at the corner of Whitehall  and Horse Guards Avenue, 
London, December 1938.
source - Flickr / Leonard Bentley

First introduced in 1935, Belishas were the brainchild of - and were named after - Leslie Hore-Belisha, the Minister for Transport from 1934 to 1937 who was a staunch advocate of improved road safety especially after he was nearly run over on Camden High Street shortly after his appointment.  Part of his Road Traffic Act 1934, which also included the creation of the 30mph urban speed limit, the first official driving test and a comprehensive updating of the Highway Code, the beacons were added to existing "uncontrolled crossings" that had until that point only been demarked by reflective metal studs set into the road.  The distinctive flashing orange globes set atop a black-and-white painted pole, along with the new speed limit and driving test, went a long way to lowering the number of fatalities on Britain's roads from 1934's high of nearly 7,500 (along with 231,000 injuries).  It was not until 1949, however, two years after It Happened Today was made, that the matching stripes were first added to the road surface giving rise to the zebra crossing name that they still bear today (and which was allegedly coined by a young James Callaghan - then a junior transport minister - when he viewed an early prototype at the Transport Research Laboratory in Berkshire).  Now the next big advance looks to be intelligent light-up crossings with warnings built into the kerb to try to catch the attention of the smartphone-addled.   

source - The World of Playing Cards

source - The World of
 Playing Cards
So well-received were the beacons that, in addition to quickly receiving Belisha's name, such was their novelty value they started something of a craze for related ephemera - including an eponymous card game based along the lines of Rummy.  Made by the well-known playing card manufacturer Pepys, the cards feature delightful images of various British landmarks and towns from London to Oban as well as pictures depicting the safe (and not so safe!) use of the road, along with examples of the road signs in use at the time (and which are fully deserving of their own blog post) and different coloured numbers - the idea being to collect sets of either of the latter.  As something of a Pepys collector myself, Belisha (my example's on the left) was one of the first of their games I picked up (from eBay a couple of years ago) and it has proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable and popular diversion (see what I did there?).  The game was updated in 1955 with the addition of an extra level of cards, updated images and new road signs.  Released as Round Britain it nevertheless retains much of the charm of Belisha, although the revised rules and new cards do make it slightly less fun to play (needless to say an example still graces my collection!).

Various road safety films similar to It Happened Today would continue to be made throughout the 1940s and '50s.  Then in 1953 came the character of Tufty Fluffytail, an anthropomorphic red squirrel created by one Elsie Mills as a way of imparting road safety advice to young children in an accessible and understandable way.  This led to the creation of the Tufty Club in 1961, designed to promulgate road and pedestrian safety among the under-5s through simple books and, later, public information films (narrated by the great Bernard Cribbins).  Such was its success that at its peak there were almost 25,000 Tufty Clubs throughout Britain with over 2 million members and the scheme lasted well into the 1980s, outliving several other programmes.


One of those programmes was the "Kerb Drill", which ran concurrently with the likes of the Tufty Club and other road safety policies.  Even Batman got in on the act during one of his rare breaks from fighting crime in Gotham City, as this recently-discovered footage from 1966 proves.


The 1970s saw the introduction of arguably the most well-known and long-lived road safety initiative - the Green Cross Code.  Featuring noted Bristolian Dave Prowse (who would later go on to greater fame as the body of Darth Vader in Star Wars) as the Green Cross Man this series debuted in 1975 and ran for nearly 20 years until the early 1990s (with a brief revival, complete with a then 80 year old Prowse, in 2014) scaring the bejesus out of a generation of dungaree-wearing kids by suddenly appearing out of nowhere, sometimes accompanied by an unnamed robot sidekick, looking very stern and shouty.  While the Green Cross Code Man was eventually retired, the Code itself lives on, although various subsequent attempts to instil road sense in youngsters have, erm, perhaps not been quite so successful.   


So there we have it then - a brief history of road safety from the 1930s to the 1990s (a bit late period-wise for this blog perhaps, but then all things Nineties are considered "vintage" now apparently) inspired by a splendid piece of 1940s film work.  Looking back at these innumerable road safety initiatives and the many dangers still very much inherent on the roads - not helped by modern technology and with 15-19 year olds having among the highest death rates due to traffic accidents - some new safety programmes inspired by the past seem called for.  One could easily see another update of Belisha, with current signs and new pictures, being just the thing to teach the youth of today how to stay safe on the roads.  Hmmn, maybe another lock-down project... 

***It Happened Today is also available to view for free on the BFIplayer*** 

Wednesday 7 October 2020

R101 airship crash: 'Hope and sadness' on 90th anniversary

R101 airship crash: 'Hope and sadness' on 90th anniversary

More from the excellent Airship Dreams project now, which first featured on this blog back in July and which celebrates the amazing vehicle that is the airship - in particular the ill-fated R.101 and its links to the town of Bedford close to where it was built.

With this week having seen the 90th anniversary (on Monday) of its unfortunate demise over the hills of Beauvais, France, in the early hours of the 5th October 1930, those involved in the Airship Dreams exhibition have rightly taken the opportunity to remember all aspects of the disaster while at the same time looking forward to the hopefully bright future that lighter-than-air travel may still enjoy.

Once again I am thoroughly impressed with the approach taken by this project and the positivity and approbation of those involved - the passion for airships and their firm place in Bedford's history is clearly palpable amongst all those involved (and rightly so).  It is wonderful to hear the thoughts of surviving family members of those involved in the R.101's development - an incredibly valuable resource that I'm sure the curators appreciate and which no doubt forms a cornerstone of the exhibition - as well as the views of the artists and exhibitors in expressing both their hopes for the future of airships and in remembrance of those who sadly perished in both this and other airship crashes.

Indeed the wishful attitudes conveyed by those involved in the project gives one to contemplate what might have been for British airships had not the R.101 not met its untimely end 90 years ago.  Would a successful flight to India have galvanised the industry and resulted in a new age of lighter-than-air travel across the British Empire, or would the decade's later events of the Hindenberg disaster and the Second World War have put paid to any thought of rigid airship progress?  Having read into the subject somewhat, the production of airships at the time was a rather fragmented affair with R.101 being a government-backed concern built by the Royal Airship Works at Cardington while its sister ship the R.100 was a private venture built by the Airship Guarantee Company (under the auspices of aircraft and armaments company Vickers-Armstrong) in Howden, Yorkshire.  R.101 was subject to much government interference (the insistence of Minister for Aviation Lord Thomson of Cardington that it should be ready for its maiden flight to India in time for him an Imperial Conference, which it was hoped would lead to his being offered the post of Viceroy of India, is usually cited as a primary factor in its lack of testing and the subsequent crash), was constantly being redesigned (at one point literally being cut in half to have extra gasbags inserted into its structure to improve lift) and was generally regarded as over-engineered, featuring many untried and dubious technologies.  R.100, on the other hand, was designed by Barnes Wallis (of later Dambusters fame) to a simple and well-established layout but suffered from the lack of government support - essentially the two projects were set up in competition to one another, so jeopardising the success of both.  Each ship had more than its fair share of teething troubles but R.100 was at least able to make a successful maiden flight to Canada in July 1930 before the R.101 calamity a mere 3 months later led to the curtailing of British airship development.

While we are now perhaps seeing the beginnings of an airship renaissance with the likes of the Airlander craft (also coming out of Cardington) and others of similar ilk, one has to ask where we might have been now had airships continued to progress throughout the 1930s and beyond.  It is an interesting exercise in "what if?" theorising if nothing else and a fascinating rabbit hole to travel down.  Would we have seen the further development of the aerial aircraft carrier?  Would those of us lucky enough to be able to afford it be cruising around the world in luxurious zeppelins in much the same way as today's well-heeled travel on ocean liners across the Atlantic?  Would the "space airships" that are only now just being mooted have been deployed to the upper atmosphere and even to other planets?  We can only look back and wonder.  

Returning to the real world and Airship Dreams I'm also delighted to see that coronavirus has not seriously impacted the putting on of this exhibition, with a physical display set to be unveiled at The Higgins Bedford museum in April 2021.  Previously the project was looking to be an online-only affair thanks to the lock-down restrictions in place at the time and although - as I mentioned in the original post - that would at least allow it to reach a wider audience and provide the opportunity to create some fascinating interactive displays, the equal benefits of having a tangible display that the people of Bedford can enjoy first-hand cannot be denied so I am pleased to see that the museum is open and the exhibit is going ahead early next year.

All-in-all then this is very welcome news of a well put-together exhibit on a fascinating subject that I am certain will be of interest to airship enthusiasts, historians and Bedfordians alike.  I wish the Airship Dreams project every success, as I'm sure it will, and I for one look forward to immersing myself in its ongoing exposition in lieu of actually being able to go to Bedford in person - perhaps one day when all this Covid malarkey is over!


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