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Sunday, 26 April 2009

Steaming into History

My Footsteps feature for this month’s BBC History magazine is on the Manchester Museum of Science and History (MOSI.) The museum is crammed with relics from the steam age such as textile machinery and locomotives. This year MOSI is celebrating a British day to remember: it’s the centenary of the first ever all-British flight. An A V Roe triplane made history on 13 July 1909 when it flew for 30 metres.

Even the site of MOSI is hallowed ground for railway enthusiasts; it was once home to the Liverpool St station of the pioneering Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which first opened on Wednesday 15 September, 1830. On the railway’s opening day a cavalcade of locomotives, including the Northumbrian, North Star, and Stephenson’s Rocket, travelled along the tracks to mark this grand day for Lancashire. Don’t forget, you can find out more about the railway and the story of the navvies who built it in my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives.

Image: Stephenson’s Rocket. Engraving from Samuel Smiles’s Lives of the Engineers: George and Robert Stephenson (John Murray, 1879.)

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

New Horizons

It's great to hear our iconic Jodrell bank telescope/ is proving its worth once again as it forms part of the new e-Merlin super radio telescope. It's only a few months since the government tried to pull the plug on this workhorse of the skies. The Lovell dish can now combine its might with many other radio telescopes to enable astronomers to 'see' the night sky at a far higher resolution than previously possible.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Second Time Lucky?

The battle of Culloden on 15 March 1746 was a turning point in Britain’s history. Not only was Bonnie Prince Charlie defeated, but that day also marked the end of the Highlanders’ traditional way of life. Tonight, a team will attempt to recreate the Jacobites’ stealthy march across the moors. The canny Highlanders hoped to strike the Duke of Cumberland’s troops while they were still snoozing under their blankets. But the sneak attack was called off just hours before the battle. It will be very interesting to see how the archaeologists get on with their re-enactment. But even if the Highlanders had succeeded with their plan, would it really have changed the ultimate outcome? The Hanoverians had greatly superior weapons, and were much better trained than the Highlanders. It’s one of those fascinating ‘What ifs’ which we'll never really know the answer to.

Image: Charles Edward Stuart, James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, (National Illustrated Library, circa 1852.)

Monday, 6 April 2009

Ackermann's Repository

Two hundred years ago, Regency bucks and misses who wanted the latest news on fashion, literature and furnishings would turn to the pages of Ackermann’s Repository. The first issue, priced at four shillings, was published on 2 January 1809. Each number contained one or two fashion plates ‘executed by Artists of the first Eminence,’ views of furnishings and shops, a sporting picture (horse-racing etc) and a woodcut (see left) with samples of the newest fabrics.
The April 1809 issue had samples of scarlet and gold furniture calico, a striped ‘Scotia silk’, and a spotted muslin made by T. & J. Smith & Co. at Covent Garden. Amongst the featured articles that month were a ‘Method of Bleaching Straw’ and an essay on gas lighting.

Images: Allegorical woodcut and Prospectus, Ackermann’s Repository, April 1809. Author’s collection.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Before Google Earth

Let's imagine an early nineteenth century businessman arriving in a strange town after many hours’ bone-shaking coach travel. If the inn was full, he’d need to locate a bed for the night. Maybe he had cloth samples to show potential customers; where could he find the principal merchants in town? How could he find out the names of the most fashionable families, or the gentry with likely business contacts? There was no internet to help him search, or Google Earth so he could check out the town before he arrived. A canny traveller would buy the latest guidebook or trade directory.
Similarly, if you’re a family historian, then trade or street directories can help you find your way around your ancestors’ town. You can explore which shops or factories were in a particular street, and discover the names of shopkeepers like butchers, grocers and bakers. The trade listings can help you confirm census data for your long-lost relatives, or cast fresh light on their everyday life. There are more tips for using trade directories and guidebooks to broaden your family history search in Let Your Fingers Do The Walking, my feature for the April issue of Ancestors, the magazine for the National Archives.

Image: Title page, Cooke’s Topographical and Statistical Guide to the County of Stafford (c. 1803.) Author’s collection.