Newsletter 21

Welcome to the December 2010 issue of our occasional newsletter.


In our last newsletter we included some pieces from The London Journal for the year 1863, nearly a century and a half ago, but newspapers do not need to be so old to be historically interesting. Here are a few more extracts from another English newspaper – this time the Hants and Berks Gazette and Middlesex and Surrey Journal for Saturday December 22nd 1928, three days before Christmas. The Gazette had a price of twopence (pronounced ‘tuppence’, this was two ‘old’ pennies before decimalisation). This local newspaper focused on the small market town of Basingstoke in north-east Hampshire. About 40 miles south-west of central London, this town expanded hugely in the 1960s to accommodate London overspill. The reports and adverts also covered places in the surrounding area such as Reading, Odiham, Farnham and Farnborough. Published only 82 years ago, just on the borderline of living memory, this newspaper gives a fascinating glimpse into life in an affluent area of Britain between the two world wars.

The modern wireless:

As with any Christmas, shops were hoping to make a good profit from the latest technological gadget being purchased as gifts. In this case it was the wireless (radio), as you can see in the advert below for E. G. Lewis of London Road in Basingstoke, a retailer that was willing to accept cash or ‘easy terms’ – payment in weekly instalments. Nowadays, less than a century later, when there are hundreds of channels providing colour television, let alone a multitude of radio stations, it is difficult to appreciate the impact of having a wireless set that could tune in to programmes from the BBC. This advert appeared on the penultimate shopping day before Christmas (everything was closed on Sunday), a reminder that buying gifts and food for Christmas was done so much later than today.

Wireless For Xmas

Motor vehicles:

Another new technology that was beginning to cause a stir was the motor vehicle, and the same newspaper for December 22nd 1928 reported several instances where the speed limit was broken:

‘Thomas Edward Crockett, motor driver for Messrs. Lyons and Co., was charged with driving a heavy motor car at a speed exceeding 12 miles an hour on the 6th Dec. P.C. [police constable] Bailey deposed that the vehicle – a heavy Leyland box lorry with solid tyres – was driven over a measured 440 yards on the London road at Old Basing at 24 miles per hour. Mr Coxwell, of Reading, who appeared for the defence, said the defendant had been driving for sixteen years and had no endorsement on his licence. Supt. Fielder said the defendant had had no conviction for the last eight years, but prior to that he had been twice fined for excessive speed. Fined £3.’

Despite the vigilance of the police concerning the speed limits, traffic accidents were not unknown, usually as the result of suspect driving. One such accident occurred when two cars collided after one of them overtook a steam-powered lorry:

‘A motor accident, which, though fortunately not involving fatal consequences, nevertheless had very serious results for both the occupants and the cars, occurred at Hartley Wintney [a large village east of Basingstoke] shortly before noon on Saturday last. The cars concerned were a small two-seater driven by Mr. Hardy, son of Dr. Hardy, of Byfleet, who was accompanied by a friend, and a Clyno two-seater occupied by two gentlemen (one of whom was driving), two ladies and a small girl. Mr. Hardy was proceeding to Sherborne [in Dorset], whilst the Clyno car was travelling in the opposite direction, being bound for London. Immediately opposite the Swan Hotel it appears that the driver of the Clyno car endeavoured to pass a steam lorry proceeding in the same direction. His view in front became momentarily interrupted by steam from the lorry, and he failed to notice Mr. Hardy’s car approaching, with the result that the two cars collided head-on. The impact was terrific and both cars became interlocked. All the occupants of the Clyno car escaped with trifling bruises and cuts, but both Mr. Hardy and his passenger were both very seriously cut about the face and terribly shaken, the latter sustaining slight concussion.’

Houses for sale:

In Britain, before the current recession, the housing market generally had a seasonal cycle, starting around Easter. By December, though, the housing market was usually flat because everyone was focused on Christmas and New Year celebrations. It appears to have been similar in 1928, because only a few houses were advertised for sale in this December issue, such as one at Fleet, a small town between Farnborough and Basingstoke:

‘At a Low Price for Quick Sale. FLEET (10 mins. station, 5 mins. p.o. [post office], shops and buses). – On high ground in a good position. A superior Semi-detached Pre-war [i.e. World War One] Brick and Slated HOUSE, nicely away from the road, containing three bedrooms, hall, 2 sitting rooms, kitchen, etc., inside sanitation [a toilet], knife or bootroom [what would now be a ‘utility room’] suitable for conversion into bathroom, company’s water and gas, main drainage, large rooms, small enclosed garden. Freehold. Vacant Possession. ALFRED PEARSON & SON (Alfred Pearson, James P. Pearson, P.A.S.I, A.A.I), ESTATE AGENTS & AUCTIONEERS, FLEET, HANTS. Estab. 1900. ‘Phone 118.’

The ‘low price’ for this property is not stated, but to judge from adverts earlier in the year, it would have cost a few hundred pounds. Another advert on the same page does mention a price, for a house in Basingstoke:

‘GRIBBLE, BOOTH & SHEPHERD, AUCTIONEERS, 22, CHURCH STREET, BASINGSTOKE, Tel 166 and at YEOVIL. BASINGSTOKE.––An attractive VILLA RESIDENCE with large garden, hall, dining room, drawing room, kitchen, three bedrooms, bathroom (h. and c.); town water, main drainage, gas and electric light, room for garage. £685 Freehold. Vacant possession. Mortgage arranged if desired.’

Until the last two or three years, Gribble, Booth & Taylor (not Shepherd) still traded as auctioneers and estate agents in Yeovil and elsewhere, but the established name disappeared when taken over by another firm.


Fire was a major hazard for home-owners, not least because fire brigades used hand-pumps, as in this fire at Whitchurch, a small town on the River Test between Basingstoke and Andover:

‘FIRE – On Friday morning people going early to work about a quarter past five noticed smoke coming out at the back of Mr. Odlum’s premises, flanked on one side by Mr. Perry’s garage and on the other side by Mr. Tigwell’s premises. Someone raised the cry of “Fire!” and Mr. H. Sampson, living close at hand, was aroused, the fire bell rung, and in a few minutes the fire engine was got into the Market Place and willing pumpers – men and women – came forward. The new waterworks were not yet in operation, but the tube in the Market Place (sunk some years ago) kept the engine well supplied. The fire evidently broke out in Mr. Odlum’s workshop, which was absolutely gutted, several tools and machines – among them a valuable lathe, to say nothing of manufactured articles – being destroyed. The fire worked its way into the house, causing considerable damage. Mr. Tigwell’s premises escaped, and though Mr. Perry got all his cars out, with the good supply of water he prevented any actual damage to his property.’


With only three days to Christmas when the newspaper was published, there was the inevitable crop of notices for various types of entertainment. In many places the two main attractions were dancing and whist:

‘GRAND CARNIVAL & FANCY DRESS DANCE in the Village Hall, Ramsdell [a village north-east of Basingstoke], on Wednesday, Dec. 26th (Boxing Day). Prizes for fancy dress, spot waltz, etc. Commence at 8 p.m. Also on Monday, Dec. 31st, Whist Drive and Dance, commencing 7.30 p.m. Dancing from 10 till 1. Eric Gill and his Band.’

For some, however, it was time to relax and watch a film. At ‘The Grand Theatre, Basingstoke’s Super Picture House’, the blockbuster for the Christmas season was a western, The Gaucho:

‘Douglas Fairbanks as “The Gaucho” will be screened on Monday and during next week at the Grand Theatre. Appearing as a robber chief, Doug. performs with his usual bravado and daring. There is the rich flavour of romance in the story, which is one of rivalry between a bandit chief (Fairbanks) and a dictator (von Seyffertitz) with his commandant (Vavitch) to seize the riches of a city grown about a shrine where miracles of healing occur. The bandit falls under the spell of a wild village girl (Lupe Velez) and later a fair pilgrim of the shrine (Eve Southern). His treacherous lieutenant (Charlie Stevens) has his force dismissed, and a series of adventures leading to the capture and escape of Doug., and the wild ride of his dusky hordes led by the madcap, and the saving of the shrine girl and her padre protector from the scaffold, contribute toward a real entertainment.’

They don’t make ‘em like that anymore! This was, of course, a black-and-white silent adventure movie, in an era long before television, and it must have played to packed houses. It was made in 1927 and was set in Argentina (though filmed on a ranch in California), running time 115 minutes, and directed by F. Richard Jones. It starred Doughlas Fairbanks, Lupe Velez and Joan Barclay.


Among all the rain, snow, sleet, hail and high winds of winter, there are often a few bright days when it may be cold but there is not a breath of wind – the halcyon days. The earliest English dictionaries, such as that compiled by Samuel Johnson, define ‘halcyon’ as peaceful, placid, quiet and still, and derive this from a bird called the halcyon ‘of which it is said that she breeds in the sea and that there is always a calm during her incubation.’

The halcyon is the kingfisher, a bird that is tied up in a legend which originated with the ancient Greeks. In their mythology, Alcyone (sometimes ‘Halcyone’ in English) was the daughter of Aeolus who was king of the winds. Alcyone married Ceyx, who was himself the son of the morning star, Eosphorus. They were so happy together that they compared themselves to the king and queen of the gods, Zeus and Hera, and for such pride they were changed into birds. He became a diver and she became a kingfisher. Since Alcyone made her nest on the edge of the sea and it was constantly destroyed by the waves, Zeus took pity on her and commanded that on the seven days either side of the winter solstice, the sea should be calm. These became the halcyon days.

Like so many myths, this one probably developed to explain a natural occurrence of such a few calm days in winter when it was possible to sail a ship in the Mediterranean. Neither the ancient Greeks nor the Romans were comfortable sailors and tended to stay within sight of land while at sea and beach their ships so as to spend the hours of darkness on land. In winter they generally did not sail at all.

The Romans developed a different version of the myth, in which Ceyx, the husband of Alcyone, sailed away to consult an oracle. During the voyage a sudden storm wrecked his ship and he was drowned. His body was washed ashore and Alcyone found him. In her despair she was changed into a bird. The gods took pity on her and changed Ceyx into a bird as well. The kingfisher seems to have been identified with the bird in the myths because in its own mythology it was thought to nest on the surface of water. In reality the kingfisher nests in burrows in riverbanks, just above the waterline. One curious piece of British folklore is that a dead kingfisher can be used as a weather vane. In some country areas it was thought that the body of a kingfisher suspended on a string would always swing to point into the wind. Whether this strange idea about kingfishers and the wind has any connection to the myths about halcyon days is not clear.

Nelson’s Column photographed on one of London’s rare ‘halcyon days’
Nelson’s Column photographed on

one of London’s rare ‘halcyon days’

Another confusion is sometimes made with the spell of fine weather that can occur around November 11th, which is St Martin’s Day or Martinmas. In some parts of Britain, such weather is called ‘St Martin’s Little Summer’, while in other places it is known as halcyon days. Nowadays November 11th is Remembrance Day, commemorating the signing of the World War One armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month: a fitting time to have calm and peaceful weather.


Many archaeological sites that were prominent features of the landscape, such as prehistoric burial mounds, hillforts and stone circles, have acquired myths, legends and ghost stories over the centuries. The most intriguing of these are the small group where ghosts have been sighted and where subsequent finds from the site seem uncannily linked to the apparition. One of the best known cases is a burial mound, since destroyed, near the town of Mold in north Wales that produced a startling object of solid gold.

One version of the story is that in about the year 1810, two centuries ago, a woman was leading her husband home at night from a public house in Mold. They were walking along the road to Chester and had barely travelled a quarter of a mile from the town when the woman saw a huge figure, clothed in shining gold. The ghost crossed the road ahead of them and went into a mound alongside the road.

Over twenty years later, in 1833, this same part of the road was being mended, and pebbles and stones were dug out of the mound to provide material for patching up the potholes. Much of the mound was quarried away, which left a large hole in the field adjacent to road. The tenant farmer, trying to make the best of the situation, instructed some of his men to shovel the remaining mound into the hole to create a level surface. In the course of this work they discovered a fragmentary gold object which was thought to be Roman armour. It is now known to be Bronze Age in date and is referred to as the Mold gold cape. Before it was destroyed, the mound from which it came was known as Bryn-Yr-Ellyllon, which is Welsh for ‘Hill of the Goblins’.

Early drawing of the Mold gold cape
Early drawing of the Mold gold cape

The early reports of this find refer to the Mold cape as a breastplate or as armour, but in fact it could never have performed such a function. The cape was made by beating out a single ingot, which resulted in a sheet of gold that was almost paper-thin. This was then decorated from the back, using a punch, to produce a raised pattern on the outer surface. Earlier investigators were at a disadvantage, as they were literally having to piece the object together because the workmen had divided up the find between them, and some small pieces have never been seen since. Later on, the cape was reinterpreted as decoration for a warhorse, but eventually it was recognised as a close-fitting cape that a person would wear over their shoulders.

The cape is now on display at the British Museum in London, having undergone an extensive programme of conservation and restoration. It is approximately 4,000 years old and was a decorative and perhaps ritual piece of costume – decorative because it is too fragile for any practical use, such as protective armour, and ritual because the rigidity of the cape, which fits over the shoulders and part way down the arms, constricts movement too much for comfortable everyday use.

When compared to the ghost, of course, the resemblance is only superficial because the size of the cape would only fit a person of small stature or a taller person of slim, athletic build. The cape was found with fragments of bone, thought to be the remains of the person buried in the mound, as well as a number of beads, but no weapons were recorded. The size of the cape and the nature of the burial within the mound points toward the cape being worn by a young woman of high status, perhaps a priestess, rather than the ‘huge figure’ of a ghost that the woman saw.

In fact, like all the best ghost stories, the account of the spectre was not provided by the witness herself, but by a third party – in this case the vicar of Mold, Charles Butler Clough. The account of the ghost seems to have been first published in a letter from Clough, which was included in a report of the find to the Society of Antiquaries of London. This appeared in the Society’s journal Archaeologia (volume 26 for the year 1836) three years after the cape was found. The relevant part of Clough’s letter stated:

‘Connected with this subject, it is certainly a strange circumstance that an elderly woman, who had been to Mold to lead her husband home late at night from a public house, should have seen or fancied, a spectre to have crossed the road before her to the identical mound of gravel, “of unusual size, and clothed in a coat of gold, which shone like the sun,” and that she should tell the story the next morning many years ago, amongst others to the very person, Mr John Langford [the tenant farmer who had the mound levelled], whose workmen drew the treasure out of its prison-house. Her having related this story is an undoubted fact. I cannot, however, learn that there was any tradition of such an interment having taken place; though possibly this old woman might have heard of something of the kind in her youth, which dwelt upon her memory, and associated with the common appellation of the Bank [mound] “Bryn-yr-Ellyllon,” (the Fairies’ or Goblins’ Hill), and a very general idea that the place was haunted, presented the golden effigy to her imagination.’

From 1854 until his death in 1859, Clough was Dean of the cathedral of St Asaph, a city a few miles to the north-west of Mold, and while there he made an addition to his account of the ghost, which was published in 1857 in the first volume of Journal of the Architectural, Archaeological and Historic Society for the County, City, and Neighbourhood of Chester:

‘I have a piece of the edge of the Corslet [cape] now in my possession, about three-quarters of an inch long, perforated with holes, which was given to me a few weeks ago at Mold; but I have never been able to procure one of the (amber?) beads, of which there were at first scores, or rather hundreds, thrown away. As for the ghost story, I can only say, that the facts stated by me were perfectly true, and that the old woman, with whom I was very well acquainted, was as little likely to have fancies about apparitions as any one I know. I have seen several remarks upon the facts in my former statement, deducing different conclusions from them to those I had advanced; but I cannot say that I have noticed any arguments which have at all convinced me that the views I entertained were wrong.’

Like the best of ghost stories, this leaves sufficient loose ends for the story to be argued about forever. Ever since the Mold gold cape was found, the whole incident has passed into local folklore and has been enhanced and enlarged. One of these enlargements came from Clough’s wife, Margaret Butler Clough, who published a book in 1861 called Scenes and Stories Little Known: Chiefly in North Wales. The book was intended to help raise funds for the repair of Bistre parish church of Emmanuel (Bistre parish is between the towns of Mold and Buckley, and the church was built in 1842). She included a verse account of the finding of the Mold cape under the title ‘The Field of the Golden Corslet’. She did not mention the old woman who was her husband’s source for the ghost story, but in a footnote says ‘An old man, commonly called “old Hugh of the Pentre,” used to tell children so about 25 years ago. He called the appearance “Brenhin yr Allt,” literally the Ancient King.’ Using strict calculations from the publication date of her book in 1861, ‘25 years ago’ means 1836 – three years after the cape was found.

So far no published or securely dated written account of this ghost story (such as in a diary, letter or newspaper) has come to light for the years before the gold cape was found. The story remains supported merely by what Charles Butler Clough said he had heard from the old woman whose husband liked a drink or two. Despite the obvious interest in the story which Clough himself acknowledged (‘I have seen several remarks upon the facts in my former statement…’) he did not choose to name or give further details about the old woman with whom he ‘was very well acquainted’. However, Clough may not have wanted to spoil a good story by enquiring too closely into the facts – perhaps we should follow his lead?


The Mold gold cape was once thought to be Roman, but is in fact much earlier. A monument in the county of Somerset looks as if it might be Roman, but is in fact much later in date.

Romulus and Remus:

Legend states that the city of Rome was founded on 21 April 753 BC by Romulus and Remus. Over seven centuries later, in AD 43, the Romans invaded Britain. One of the key reasons for invading this barbarian island was to mine the extensive lead and silver deposits on the Mendip Hills. The A39 road runs from the Roman city of Bath to Wells in Somerset, south-west England, through the rugged landscape of the Mendips. It is an incredibly busy stretch of road, and travellers among the fast-moving traffic are probably more aware of the huge television transmitting mast on the summit of Pen Hill. Half a mile south of the Green Ore crossroads, a few may catch a glimpse of a roadside monument set on four scaly pillars on top of a field boundary wall, before their attention is taken by the steep tree-lined descent into the city of Wells itself.

The monument, standing 12 feet high, is topped by a sculpture of two babies being suckled by a she-wolf – a depiction of Romulus and Remus, the fabled founders of Rome. According to legend their father was Mars, the god of war, and their mother was Rhea Sylvia, one of the Vestal Virgins. When they were born, their uncle Amulius ordered them and their mother to be drowned (although in some versions of the story she was imprisoned), and to that end the twins were put in a basket and cast adrift in the River Tiber. Instead of drowning, they were rescued and brought up by a female wolf, and Romulus then murdered his brother and founded the city that was named after him – Rome.

Needless to say, the ancestry of the twins and the story of the founding of Rome are very suspect. Even so, this legend was fervently believed by the ancient Romans and celebrated in the festival of Lupercalia, which involved a great deal of revelry and was very popular – so much so that the early Christian church was unable to abolish it. In AD 494 the Pope Gelasius therefore made the date of the festival, 15th February, the Festival of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and Christianity gradually absorbed the pagan festivities.

The Romulus and Remus monument in the hills above Wells, Somerset
The Romulus and Remus monument

in the hills above Wells, Somerset

World War Two POWs:

If the sculpture on the road to Wells dated from the time of the Roman occupation, it would be a remarkable survival, but in fact the monument was built at the end of World War Two. It is actually a reminder of the thousands of prisoners-of-war who were held in camps across Britain. From 1942 over 150,000 Italian prisoners-of-war were brought to Britain, chiefly to work as farm labourers. After Italy’s defeat in September 1943, many of them were allowed to work as free men. In Somerset there were eight main prisoner-of-war camps, two of them just outside Wells – Stoberry Park and Penleigh. Men from these camps worked on road maintenance or on the neighbouring farms, and some were lodged with the farmers who employed them. They were even given a degree of freedom, being able to visit cinemas and other events in local towns, although they usually had to be back in camp before the pubs closed.

One of these men was an Italian by the name of Gaetano Celestra, who had possibly grown up in north Africa or Sicily. It is thought he was held at Penleigh Camp, but possibly Stoberry as well. He was a stonemason and when working on farms in the area, he appreciated the kindness of the local people. After a German air raid dropped some stray bombs and damaged a drystone wall belonging to land owned by Mr Wellstead-White, alongside the A39 road at Pen Hill, not far from the POW camps, Celestra was given the job of undertaking the repairs. Perhaps because he enjoyed the far-ranging views from this elevated spot, he obtained permission to design and erect a monument in his spare time, as a gesture of thanks to the people who made him welcome.

The result was the sculpture of the wolf and twins, made from concrete and plaster over a wire armature and derived ultimately from an Etruscan bronze sculpture dating to around 500 BC. This is a famous image, adopted as a symbol of Rome, that has been repeatedly copied by sculptors and painters over the centuries, but what Celestra used as a guide was the image on a 50-lire bank note.

End of the war:

All who wanted to go home were repatriated by the end of 1945, but like many Italians Celestra preferred to stay. He settled on the Waldegrave Estate in Chewton Mendip and did farm work, repairing drystone walls, and then took a job with a builder in Wells who was himself a former POW. Eventually Celestra emigrated and was last heard of in Zimbabwe, but other Italians married local women and settled in Britain permanently. Unfortunately, virtually no records survive in the National Archives about the prisoners-of-war, because in the early 1960s, the appropriate records were returned to the various national authorities under the conditions of the Geneva Convention. Likewise, the prisoner-of-war camps are almost completely forgotten now. The camp buildings were temporary structures, mainly Nissen huts, easily removed after the war, and in most cases nothing remains on the ground to show that a camp had ever existed – nor are they marked on maps. For Stoberry Park, the stone gate pillars of the entrance to the camp still stand in College Road at Wells.

It is only in a few instances that monuments or memorials have survived to remind us of the thousands of prisoners-of-war who once helped the British ‘dig for victory’ on farms across the country, and of the way that supposed enemies were often accepted and integrated into local communities. In 2002 the statue was restored by D’Ovidio Bros Ltd, and more recently Mendip District Council’s conservation team persuaded English Heritage to have this statue listed as a Grade 2 monument.

Visiting the monument:

Today, anyone wanting to have more than a glance at Celestra’s monument from a passing car has to take their life in their hands. It is possible to park by the roadside near the Pen Hill mast, at one of the highest points in the Mendip Hills, and walk 200 yards along the dangerous and constantly busy road (there is no footpath, and only a narrow roadside verge) to the monument itself.


In our last newsletter, we did a piece called ‘The End of the Book?’, on the demise of the printed book and the rise of electronic books (‘e-books’). This certainly led to many of you getting in touch, lamenting the fact that decent books are disappearing. Will we now say ‘I’m really looking forward to curling up with a good ebook?’, asked one of you (who then firmly answered ‘NO!’). Since our last newsletter, the number of e-books seems to be on the rise. For authors it is good and bad. The good thing is that they are always ‘in print’. No longer will there be the awful experience of receiving great reviews for your book but for it to be out-of-stock or out-of-print. The bad thing is that many authors receive tiny payments for e-books. We’re not sure which of our books are available as e-books, but certainly The War for All the Oceans and Nelson’s Trafalgar are available in the United States. As for book buyers, we know that many of you are very unhappy about the idea of reading e-books – and you even print out our own e-newsletters. For those of you who watch the BBC television series ‘New Tricks’, one episode in the last series was set partly in the London Library, and the character Brian Lane (played by Alun Armstrong) was in his element here, being surrounded by real books. The London Library is an independent subscription library containing over a million volumes, most of which are on 15 miles of open-access shelves. Over 97% are available for loan. Membership is available to all. See the library’s website.


Our latest magazine article to be published is in Family History Monthly for November 2010, pages 22–6. This issue of the magazine concentrates on religion, and our own article is on nonconformist religions.


Empires of the Plain (Lesley’s book about the decipherment of cuneiform, set in Iraq, Iran, India and Afghanistan) has recently been published in paperback in Bulgaria, by the publisher Riva.

Competition [now closed]

The Victorians are well known for their inventions, and in the 1870s a distinctive form of glass bottle, with a captive glass marble in the neck, was invented by Hiram Codd of Camberwell (then in Surrey, now Greater London). His design was perfected in 1872 and patented in the USA in 1873. Variations of his design of bottle were used all over the world up to, and beyond World War One. They were used for a specific type of drink. Was it,

A. Beer
B. Cider
C. Brandy
D. Wine
E. Codswallop