The pressing theme at the moment is how to save the planet. Climate change and pollution are key issues, and everyone is being urged to stop using fossil fuels. The world was so very different in the second half of the 19th century and throughout the 20th. Lives were then transformed by petroleum, oil, diesel, gas and by-products such as plastic.
A garage with Esso petrol pumps at Maidenhead in Berkshire
in the 1950s, on the main highway to London
Tar for the ships
Petroleum, or ‘rock oil’, is a naturally occurring liquid that has been exploited for thousands of years in the Middle East, China and Europe, including the thickest form of petroleum known as Continue reading
Before the invention of the internal combustion engine, nobody knew what to do with the natural petroleum deposits in north America, apart from small-scale use. In the 1840s, western Pennsylvania was a sparsely populated area of forests, farms and creeks, and petroleum was marketed as a curative medicine. Experiments then showed that kerosene (paraffin) could be distilled from petroleum and was suitable for replacing whale oil in lamps. This was such an incredible development in lighting that it led to speculative wells being dug. A further development occurred in 1859 when the first artesian well was successfully drilled at Titusville in Pennsylvania, initially producing 25 barrels (each containing 42 US gallons) of petroleum a day. The news spread like wildfire, and oil mania began.
Petrolia was the overall name given to the region, and in just four years numerous small towns Continue reading
We recently stopped at Alton in Hampshire for another visit. This town is 40 miles south-west of the city of London and close to the village of Chawton, where Jane Austen spent her final years (she also used to visit Alton frequently). We had planned to spend an hour or so here, but stayed much longer, because it felt open for business and welcoming.
Decline of communities
Alton is a thriving market town, which is a rarity, because although politicians bailed out banks with taxpayers’ money, they then allowed them to close down a staggering number of branches, thousands of them, leaving some places without a single branch. This has had devastating consequences and forces people to travel much further from their local communities for basic services – which is not great for the environment.
The closure of local newspapers has also led to a failure of accountability, so that local councils have, with near impunity, raised car parking charges and closed down amenities such as public libraries, buses, youth clubs and toilets, exacerbating the spiral of decline.
By contrast, Alton felt vibrant. It was market day, there was glorious sunshine, and we were looking for a few places associated with Jane Austen and her family, in particular her two naval brothers, Frank and Charles. Continue reading
In the 1st century AD, the Romans established a fort at Lancaster, at a point where the river crossing could be defended, and seagoing ships and boats would sail up the river estuary with supplies. A thousand years later, the Domesday Book’s name for the place was ‘Loncastre’, meaning ‘Roman fort on the River Lune’. A bridge may have been built during the Roman occupation, and one has certainly existed since medieval times.
St George’s Quay was developed on the south bank of the River Lune in the mid-18th century, and with access to the open sea, large sailing ships could moor close to the warehouses and load and unload goods.
St George’s Quay with its row of Georgian warehouses
The flourishing port was further boosted by the construction of the Lancaster Canal, Continue reading
Before heated irons, laundry and cloth were smoothed with a wooden roller and flat board without any form of heating or by rubbing with glass linen smoothers, polished stones or even hard wood.
Solid irons that were heated in front of fires began to be used in Europe from the 17th century (the technique was employed much earlier in China). They were known as sad irons, ‘sad’ being an old English word for ‘solid’, though the term ‘flat iron’ became more common.
Another type of iron was the box iron that had a hollow body with a hinged lid or sliding door at the back. Heated iron blocks were placed inside, or else charcoal or glowing embers from the fire that were kept alight by ventilation holes in the sides of the box. By the 19th century, flat irons were the most popular implement for smoothing cloth.
Two 19th-century flat irons
Heating a flat iron
Various sizes and weights of flat iron were produced for different types of cloth and garments. Continue reading
A visit to Agatha Christie
Penguin paperback books, famous across the world and the mainstay of anyone’s reading during the 1950s and 1960s, were conceived in 1934 on Exeter St David’s railway station. This was (and still is) the main station for the city of Exeter and our own local station. While sat in the waiting room recently, we were drawn to the framed picture shown here that commemorates this significant episode. It apparently occurred after Allen Lane, who worked for The Bodley Head publishers in London, had been visiting the bestselling crime novelist Agatha Christie in Devon.
On a recent trip to the city of Lancaster in Lancashire, we made a point of visiting the wonderful Lune Aqueduct. The main road bridge over the River Lune is on the north side of Lancaster, and a short walk further north alongside the river brings you to Rennie’s Bridge, better known as the Lune Aqueduct, which carries the canal over the river.
The Lune Aqueduct over the River Lune
The Lune Aqueduct is a fine example of Georgian architecture, largely in its original form and Continue reading
The first attempts at manned hot-air balloon flights took place not long after the ending of the Great Siege of Gibraltar. The Montgolfier brothers (Joseph Michel and Jacques Étienne), established a tradition that persisted with the first spaceflights – sending up animals in the initial experimental flights. In September 1783, a cock, duck and sheep were attached to a hot-air balloon and launched from the Palace of Versailles, near Paris. The animals travelled 2 miles in 8 minutes before landing safely. After that, the way was open for larger balloons carrying people, and the age of flight began. All kinds of enthusiasts started to experiment with both hydrogen and hot-air balloons, and ascents became popular spectacles.
First female balloonists
In June 1784 Madame Thible was the first woman to fly in a balloon, taking off from Lyons in France. A year later (and still less than two years after the first flight by animals), Mrs Letitia Ann Sage became the first woman in Britain to ascend in a balloon.
Letitia Sage, George Biggin and Vincenzo Lunardi
(waving his hat)in the balloon before the ascent in June 1785
The original plan had been for Vincenzo Lunardi, George Biggin and Mrs Sage to make the balloon flight on 29 June 1785, but in the event Continue reading
From hand to steam
Before the mid-15th century, everything was written by hand, including multiple copies of the same work, which meant plenty of opportunities for scribal errors. Then the invention of printing revolutionised book production, because it was quicker, easier and cheaper to produce multiple copies with exactly the same text. Even though printing presses continued to develop, with more efficient designs, they were still powered by hand until the introduction of steam-powered presses in the early 19th century. This revolution increased the number and availability of books and allowed their cost to decrease.
Manually operated printing presses continued in use for specific tasks, but by the late 19th century steam power was dominant. Printers often combined printing services with selling books and stationery, and in an advertisement of 1865, Nall’s Steam Printing Works at Norwich in Norfolk offered ‘Printing by steam power with speed & economy’. The same company also sold books and stationery and ran a subscription library.
Nall’s Steam Printing Works, Norwich
For printing a book by steam, each page was made up with individual metal letters (called ‘type’) Continue reading
London, October 1814 – a time of peace. Britain was no longer at war with France, though the war with the United States of America continued. Nobody realised that in early 1815 Europe would be engulfed by turmoil when Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from Elba, which would culminate in the Battle of Waterloo.
The Horseshoe Brewery, which was named after the public house next door, lay between Tottenham Court Road, Bainbridge Street, New Street and Great Russell Street. This was almost the unmarked boundary between the upmarket West End of London and the notorious slums of St Giles.
The slum tenements of St Giles, London
This brewery was known for its porter, which had grown out of the custom of Londoners drinking a mix of two or three weak and strong beers. In the 1720s one brewer had produced a blend of three beers that was dark brown, almost black, in colour. This strong beer was so popular with market porters that Continue reading