Category Archives: history

Now we can read a book!

It was Monday 6th September 1852 that saw the opening, in Manchester, of the United Kingdom’s first free lending library.

On Wednesday 8th the Taunton Courier & Western Advertiser reported that:

‘The opening of the Manchester Free Public Library has been looked forward to with a good deal of interest, and it will not be a matter of surprise that great anxiety was manifested by the public to be present on the occasion. The ceremony took place in the spacious room in which are stored the volumes designed as a library for reference, whilst the distinguish visitors intending to take part in the proceedings were received in a room of corresponding proportions on the first floor, containing the books which form the public lending library. At twenty minutes past eleven o’clock, when the noblemen and gentlemen invited to take part in the proceedings had taken their seats in the upper room, there were nearly a thousand persons present, a great portion of who were ladies. Sir John Potter presided, and the following noblemen and gentlemen took their seats on either side of the chair’. Here is not the place to list them all but a Mr Thackery and a Mr Charles Dickens were amongst the gathering. The latter was –‘received with the most cordial cheering and gave an introductory speech which provoked laughs and cheers’.

The York Herald later told us that ‘the total cost of the building, in its present state, with its fittings and furniture, was £6,963 6s 2d. The extent of shelving already provided would accommodate from 6,000 to 7,000 additional volumes. The number of volumes purchased to date is 18,028 and their aggregate cost was £4,156 – or about 4 shillings 7 pence per volume on the average. In addition to the books thus acquired, 3,292 volumes have been presented to the library. The number of volumes at present contained in the library of reference is 16,103’.

I just love the specific publishing of data in the newspapers of the time.

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1942 sees two ‘new’ singers on the scene

The war was now across the whole world but the music of the US in 1942 brought a top five tracks that would last long after the conflict had ended.  These were:

At number 5 was ‘A String of Pearls’ by Glenn Miller while, at number 4, Jimmy Dorsey was telling the story of ‘Tangerine’ with Vaughn Monroe’s version very close behind.

Glenn Miller was also at number 3 – this time with ‘Moonlight Cocktail’ – with Paul Whiteman ‘Traveling Light’ at number 2.

At number 1 was Alvino Rey – or Bing Crosby – or Horace Heidt – or the Merry Macs – but, which ever we chose, all will tell us the same story – the story that was ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’!

Meanwhile in Britain, without any question, the most popular vocalist of the time and place was Vera Lynn“the forces’ sweetheart”.  She sang just about every well-known wartime song in her concerts and in her travels to the troops.  I remember my Dad sending a message back to mum and me at home saying they had enjoyed ‘Vera Lynn singing and talking to everyone out in the desert one afternoon – but he could not say where it had happened’. I know he also had two or three more ‘shows’ from Ms Lynn – but he never did say where they were!

There was, however, more than one side to all of this – and that came to the fore in February 1942 when bandleader Tommy Dorsey said of an singer:  ‘He’s a great singer, but ya know, you can’t make it without a band.  Every singer has got to have a band behind him’. Tommy was talking about a twenty-six-year-old singer who was riding the crest of phenomenal popularity.  Wherever this singer appeared with Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra he would be greeted with screams, sighs, and fainting spells from a faithful contingent of over-stimulated female bobby-soxers greeting his every phrase, motion, and intonation with loud and rapturous delight.

Having spent the previous seven years paying his musical dues – a tour with a Major Bowes’ amateur unit; a stint as a singing waiter, a year as vocalist with the struggling Harry James orchestra – one Frank Sinatra now felt he was ready for a solo career, even if his boss Tommy Dorsey said he was ‘a damn fool’ for considering it!

Francis Albert Sinatra was born on 12th December 1915 – an American singer, actor, and producer who would become one of the most popular and influential musical artists of the 20th century.  He became one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 150 million records worldwide and would find success as a solo artist after he signed with Columbia Records in 1943, becoming the idol of the “bobby soxers” when he released his debut album, ‘The Voice of Frank Sinatra’ in 1946.

11th August 1968 and British Rail makes 3 Special Offers

 A 315 mile, almost eleven hour journey marked the end of standard gauge steam-hauled passenger service on British Railways.  The timings sheet was headed with the statement – ‘Last steam hauled train on Britain Railways on standard track, Sunday 11th August 1968.’

A ‘Souvenir Platform Ticket’ was available – it tells us that: The last steam hauled train to operate on standard gauge track will run on Sunday, 11th August 1968.  The train will run from Liverpool 09.10 via Manchester to Carlisle calling at Manchester Victoria at 10.36 and 18.48 and will be hauled from Liverpool to Manchester by a class 5 locomotive.

Front & back of a souvenir platform ticket is available from The John Debens Collection.   Manchester Victoria souvenir platform ticket 2s 6d.  Not valid on Train. Not Transferable.

Music tells us stories as conflict begins

The years 1939 & 1940 are difficult to really put together in our story.  Britain was at war – the USA stood out of it.  On 31st August in Britain many civilians were evacuated from London while, in the USA, Bing Crosby was the leading figure of the ‘Crooner’ sound and was on his way to becoming a superstar of the 1940s.

In the USA ‘charts in 1939 at number 5 we find Louis Armstrong with ‘When the Saints Go Marching Home’ .  Billie Holiday is at number 4 with ‘Strange Fruit’  while number 3 gives us – Kate Smith with ‘God Bless America’  Number 2 delivers – Glenn Miller with ‘Moonlight Serenade’  and number 1 gives us – Judy Garland with ‘Over the Rainbow’

In early 1939s Britain still had the Depression to concern large parts of the population but a new “high society” had a developing and golden age of culture dawning.  The cinema industry was booming, with many people attending more than once a week to seek escapism from their daily struggles.

The 1939 Academy Awards saw 10 films nominated for Best Picture, among them classics that are still highly regarded today, including Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye Mr Chips and the winner Gone With the Wind.  Britain in 1939 also had their own popular music – but in no particular order – that contained:  ‘Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major’ by Art Noel & Don Pelosi; ‘On the Outside Always Looking In’ with words and music by Michael Carr who also wrote ‘Somewhere in France with You’‘South of the Border’ had words and music by Jimmy Kennedy & Michael Carr as had ‘We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line’.   Two more numbers – ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘There’ll always be and England’  – with words by Hughie Charles & music by Ross Parker. 

To closed off this set let us have Gracie Fields, with Harry Parr Davies’s words and music, asking us all – and especially our fighting forces – to ‘Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodby’.

Before the conflict began Britain was importing about 55 million tons of food a year from other countries and a typical breakfast for a middle-class Brit consisted of porridge and milk or bacon and tomatoes. Lunch might be veal cutlets and boiled potatoes and, for dinner, a meal of creamed chicken and vegetables with baked rice pudding for dessert.  That food importation was halted in late 1939 when German submarines started attacking British supply ships. There was a worry that this would lead to shortages in food supplies, so in 1940, rationing was introduced. The Ministry of Food drafted in the original “celebrity chef” Marguerite Patten to devise lean wartime recipes, and radio shows such as the BBC’s Kitchen Front encouraged the nation’s housewives to wash – rather than peel – vegetables to increase their nutritional value and avoid unnecessary wastage.

It was on 7th May 1940 that the British House of Commons began a debate about the disastrous British campaign against the Germans in Norway. This turned into a vote of confidence in Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister. Although Chamberlain won the vote it was clear he had lost the confidence of his colleagues in the Conservative Party and the field became clear for Winston Churchill to take office. He took the post on 10th May 1940 – the same day that Germany invaded Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg!

It was on 7th December 1941 that Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and very shortly after that the United States entered World War II

The flagship named Mary Rose

Sunday 19th July 1545 was the day that the Mary Rose, flagship of King Henry VIII’s fleet, sank off Portsmouth 34 years after coming into service.   In 1971 the wreck was located, raised and is now a museum that attracts visitors from across the world.

The actual reason why she sank remains a matter for deep discussion. The only confirmed eyewitness account of the sinking says that she had fired all of her guns on one side and was turning when she was caught in a strong gust of wind. Other accounts agree that she was turning, but offer various reasons why she sank during the manoeuvre.

Although there is no archaeological evidence from the wreck to confirm this, a French cavalry officer present at the battle stated that the Mary Rose had been sunk by French guns. A cannonball low in the hull would have let water to flood in, making the ship unstable and leading to her sinking. Perhaps this was why the ship turned north so suddenly. Was she aiming to reach the ‘Spitbank’ shallows which were only a few hundred meters away?

A fourth suggestion is that she was overloaded with heavy guns and/or with extra soldiers. If this was the case, a strong gust of wind could have heeled her over into the sea. However, the guns had been put aboard in London so she had managed to get round the Kent coast, and along the English Channel, without mishap so why did she topple in the Solent?  All we know is that we probably never will know why it happened – but that’s the perennial challenge presented by so much of our history!

There are many questions – and as many may-be answers – that go with this story.  For instance – why was the ship named as it was?   The second part of the flagship’s name is believed to refer to the Tudor rose, the emblem of Henry VIII’s house – but what about ‘Mary’?  That name could refer to the Virgin Mary, but it is more commonly seen as a reference to Henry VIII’s sister Mary who was the wife of King Louis XII of France.  We’ll never know!

Music and other aspects of the 1930s

For a great many the 1930s were remembered for mass unemployment with unemployment in Britain at the start of 1933 at 22.8%.  However, by January 1936 it had eased to 13.9% and in 1938 it was down to around 10%.  There was still a semi-permanent depression area in the North of England, Scotland and South Wales but new industries, such as car and aircraft manufacture, and new electronics were prospering in the Midlands and the South of England where unemployment was relatively low.

The 1930s were the great age of cinema going in Britain with many people going at least once and sometimes twice a week. The early films were black and white but in the 1930s the first colour films were made – although it was decades before all films were made in colour.  Radio broadcasting had begun in 1922 in Britain when the BBC was formed and by 1933 half the households in Britain had a radio. Television began in Britain in 1936 when the BBC began broadcasting.

From the mid-1920s to 1946 the most popular form of music in the UK was that produced by dance bands. The British bands never quite adopted the kind of USA “Swing” and “Big Band” jazz and during the 1930s the most popular form of music in the UK was that produced by dance bands – quite tame compared to American jazz and was generally sweeter.  Non-the-less Billy Cotton began in the 1930s and still had a prime-time TV programme until the late ’60s and Ted Heath’s fame lasted until 1964. Many others carefully adjusted as time passed.  For instant – Jack Hilton’s band was “hot” until 1933, but then became sweeter as their success grew.  Some of the lead singers also enjoyed fame on their own. Most famous were Al Bowlly and Leslie `Hutch` Hutchinson.

I’ll close off for this week with something very different from music – but something that people could nibble while they listened their music of choice …..

This decade also saw sales of ice cream boom and many new kinds of sweets introduced. Jaffa cakes had gone on sale in 1927 and Twiglets and Crunchy Bars in 1929.  Milky Way had been on sale in 1923 in the USA and arrived in Britain in 1935. Other UK arrivals included:  Snickers (1930), Mars Bar (1932), Whole Nut (1933), Aero and Kit Kat (1935), Maltsters and Blue Riband (1936) and Smarties, Rolo and Milky Bar (1937).

Music through good times & bad in the 1920’s

By the mid-1920s jazz was thriving in Britain with its popularity being boosted by the Melody Maker, a music newspaper which first appeared in January 1926, as well as by radio programmes from the recently launched British Broadcasting Corporation.

However this mid-1920s post-war period of prosperity was soon to be well and truly over. The re-introduction of the Gold Standard by Winston Churchill in 1925 kept interest rates high and meant UK exports were expensive. Coal reserves had been depleted during the War and Britain was now importing more coal than it was mining. All this, and the lack of investment in the new mass-production techniques in industry, led to a period of depression, deflation and decline in the UK’s economy. Unemployment rose to over 2 million, and particularly affected areas in the north of England and Wales, where unemployment reached 70% in some places. This lead in turn to the Great Strike of 1926 and, following the US Wall Street crash of 1929, the beginning of the Great Depressions of the 1930s.

From a decade that started with such a ‘boom’, the 1920s ended in an almighty bust, the likes of which weren’t to be seen again for a great many more years. None-the-less – all this poverty amongst the unemployed contrasted strikingly with the affluence of the middle and upper classes!

An American who came to the UK in the 1920s was Carroll Gibbons. He was born and raised in Clinton, Massachusetts. In his late teens he travelled to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1924 he returned to London with the brassless Boston Orchestra for an engagement at the Savoy Hotel in the Strand. He liked Britain so much that he settled there and later became the co-leader (with Howie Jacobs) of the Savoy Orpheans and the bandleader of the New May Fair Orchestra, which recorded for the Gramophone Company on the HMV label. In 1929, Gibbons appeared in the British film ‘Splinters’ as “Carroll Gibbons and His Masters Voice Orchestra”. Ray Noble himself led the New Mayfair Orchestra starting in 1929

Despite all of the hardships in the UK and the USA there were glimpses of a ‘new world’ – of ‘new people’.

A story of a soccer team – my soccer team!

I’ve been a Manchester United supporter ever since they beat Blackpool 4-2 to win the FA Cup at Wembley in 1948.  Twenty years later – on Wednesday 29th May 1968 – I was on tenterhooks as I listened to another game at Wembley.  This one was the European Cup Final between Manchester United and the Spanish masters Benfica.  Bobby Charlton put United ahead 8 minutes into the second half; Benfica had equalized 20 minutes later and, but for a great save by United’s goalkeeper Alex Stepney from Eusébio, came close to defeat.  In extra-time goals from George Best (93 mins), Brian Kidd (94 mins) and Bobby Charlton (99 mins) made United 4-1 winners and me VERY happy!  Manchester United – ‘my team’ – had become the first English club to win the European Cup!

Ten years after the Munich air crash, which killed eight of Matt Busby’s young team, Manchester United had reached the pinnacle of European football again.  Celtic FC had become the first Scottish and British club to win the cup the previous year.  Manchester United were out to be the second.  United’s star player, George Best had been named European Footballer of the Year – just a fortnight after being named the British football writers’ Footballer of the Year.

At Wembley Stadium on 29th May 1968 there were100,000 supporters to watchers with an estimated 250 million TV viewers across Europe making it the biggest television audience since the World Cup final two years previous.  The match was to determine the winners of the 1967-68 European Cup – the 13th season of this trophy – a final being contested by Benfica of Portugal and Manchester United of England.  The first half passed in a flurry of fouls but no goals.  In the second half Bobby Charlton broke the stalemate with a headed goal to United but with just 10 minutes left Benfica scored the equaliser.  Things now got challenging and Benfica nearly won the match when Eusebio broke away from Nobby Stiles and blasted the ball towards the net.  However – United’s keeper, Alex Stepney, made the save and the game went into extra time.

The world now seemed to take care of United because two minutes into extra time Georgie Best put United ahead again, when he slipped round the Benfica keeper and gently tapped the ball over the line.  Two more United goals followed – one from the 19-year-old Brian Kidd and the last one from captain Bobby Charlton.  The ‘United’ had won 4-1.

Matt Busby – the United Manager said: “They’ve done us proud. They came back with all their hearts to show everyone what Manchester United are made of. This is the most wonderful thing that has happened in my life and I am the proudest man in England tonight.”

Matt Busby had been seriously injured in the crash that had claimed the lives of his so-called Busby Babes and there was speculation at the time that the club had been so badly damaged it would have to fold.  But they struggled on to complete the 1958/59 season and when Busby returned to the manager’s role the following season he began the task of rebuilding the side. Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes were the only survivors of the crash who played in today’s final. The European Cup marked the highlight of Matt Busby’s long career at Manchester United and he later received a knighthood from the Queen.  He retired after the following season to become the club’s general manager.

For George Best it was the highlight of his footballing career. The same year he was also named European Footballer of the Year and was regarded by many as one of the greatest footballing talents in the world, ranked alongside the Brazilian great Pele.

Bobby Charlton had a distinguished playing career for England and Manchester United. He scored 48 goals for England, a record which still stands. He was knighted in 1994.

The world is changing – and perhaps not for the better

It’s the second decade of the 20th century and the world continues to develop and change.

At this time Great Britain was at the centre of the world’s largest empire, a beneficiary of colonial resources and trade.  It occupied territory on four different continents and was at the centre of a vast trading and commercial empire.  However, domestically, 19th century Britain was often unsettled by demands for improved conditions and political reform.  British rulers had engaged in imperial expansion over the years but had sought to avoid war – a policy dubbed ‘splendid isolation’.  However – this policy approach was waning in the early 1900s as British interest concentrated on events in Europe, particularly the unification of Germany and the expansionist policies adopted by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

In the USA Sophie Tucker was singing of ‘Some of These Days’; Arthur Collins & Byron Harlan were telling us all about ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’.  We also have the American Quartet group singing  ‘Moonlight Bay’; Billy Murray telling the story of ‘Casey Jones’ while Al Jolson was singing ‘You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)’ to the US population at large.

By 1914 Britain was no longer the dominant economic power in Europe. It still had the world’s largest shipbuilding industry but in other areas such as coal, iron, chemicals and light engineering, Britain was being out-performed by Germany.

Britain was a constitutional monarchy under George V with a government formed by the majority party of the House of Commons with members being elected by some 8 million registered male voters. The aristocratic House of Lords had limited power to veto legislation.

Since the later part of the 19th century the British government had considered Germany to be the main threat to its empire. This was reinforced by Germany’s decision in 1882 to form a Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy – an alliance to support each other if attacked by either France or Russia.  France felt threatened by the Triple Alliance and was concerned by the growth in the German Navy and, in 1904, the two countries had signed the Entente Cordiale (friendly understanding) with the objective of the alliance was to encourage co-operation against the perceived German threat. Three years later Russia, who also feared the growth of the German Army, joined Britain and France – and the ‘Triple Entente’ was formed.

By August 1914, Britain had 247,432 regular troops. About 120,000 of these were in the British Expeditionary Army and the rest were stationed abroad. There were soldiers in all Britain’s overseas possessions except the white dominions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada.  The USA had no links with either side at this time.

Despite everything, there was music to generate some cheerfulness.  One such number was ‘Pack up your troubles in your old Kit Bag – and Smile, Smile, Smile’ written in 1915 by Welsh brothers Felix Powell – an army staff sergeant – and George Henry Powell who became a conscientious objector.  A later play presented by the National Theatre recounts how these music hall stars rescued the song from their rejects pile and re-scored it to win a wartime competition for a marching song.  In its many ways it became very popular and boosted British morale despite the horrors of that war. It was one of a large number of music hall songs aimed at maintaining morale, recruiting for the forces, or defending Britain’s war aims. Here are the words if you want to turn back those challenging times:

Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag, and smile, smile, smile. While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag, smile, boys, that’s the style.  What’s the use of worrying?  It never was worthwhile, so pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag, and smile, smile, smile.

Another of these songs, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ was so similar in musical structure that the two were sometimes sung side by side.

Ragtime begins to change our music

Ragtime became central to the development of jazz in both America and Britain around the turn of the century.  The term ‘ragtime’ comes from the syncopated or ‘ragged’ rhythm and had its origins in the African-American communities in cities such as St. Louis. One of the first pioneers and composers of ragtime was Ernest Hogan. He was the first composer to have his ragtime pieces (or “rags”) published as sheet music, beginning with the song “LA Pas Ma LA” published in 1895.  More important, though, could be the fact that he has been credited for coining the term ragtime.  Ben Harney, another Kentucky native, has often been credited for introducing the music to the mainstream public. His first ragtime composition, “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon but You Done Broke Down”, helped popularize the style. However – the composition was published in 1895, a few months after Ernest Hogan.

Nun-the-less – it is neither of these that keep Ragtime in our memory.  That composer is Scott Joplin who became famous through the publication of the “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899 and was followed by “The Entertainer” in 1902.  Despite this Scott, and many others of the time, were later forgotten by all but a small, dedicated community of ragtime aficionados.  It was not until a major ragtime revival in the early 1970s that brought them to the fore.

So what’s happening in Britain at this time?  Well – not too much with regard to day-to-day music it would appear.  Many of the earliest parlour songs were transcriptions for voice and keyboard of other music.  Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies, for instance, were traditional “folk” tunes with new lyrics by Moore.  Many arias from Italian operas, particularly those of Bellini and Donizetti, had become parlour songs, with texts either translated or replaced by new lyrics. Various other genres were also performed in the parlour, including patriotic selections, religious songs, and pieces written for the musical stage.  However – excerpts from blackface minstrels, arranged for voice and keyboard, were particularly popular.  Also we we have a handful of the better-known songs, such as Schubert’s “Serenade”, that became part of the parlour repertory. Lyrics written for parlour songs often have sentimental themes, such as love songs or poetic meditations.  We’ll come to these at a later time.

However – the following has been tracked down as being the top 10 pieces in 1901 to 1910. Starting at 10th best – and heading to number one – we have:

Arthur Collins (1902) we have ‘Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home’.

Harry MacDonough with Miss Walton (1909)‘Shine on Harvest Moon’.

Hayden Quartet (1903) ‘In the Good Old Summer Time’.

Bill Murray in 1905 ‘Yankee Doodle Boy’.

Billy Murray (1904) ‘Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis’.

Byron Harlan (1907) ‘School Days (When We Were a Couple of Kids)’.

Bill Murray (1905) ‘Give my Regards to Broadway’

Hayden Quartet (1908) ‘Take me out to the ball game’.

Hayden Quartet (1904) ‘Sweet Adeline (You’re the Flower of My Heart)’.

And at number one for the years 1901 to 1910 we have:

Bill Murray (1906) ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag (aka ‘The Grand Old Rag’)’.