Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Sweeney comes to Plymouth

In the 1970s, one of the coolest programmes on British television was 'The Sweeney' starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman. Both stars came to Plymouth in the 1980s. John Thaw filmed, mainly at Cawsand, a long-forgotten film from Westward Television about Francis Drake.
In the early 1980s, Dennis Waterman came to Plymouth, along with Rula Lenska, to take part in the poppy day remembrance ceremony during November. For some reason, the ceremony was held at the bottom of the escalator beside C&A's in the old Drake Circus shopping centre. I went along to see it all and there was quite a crowd of people waiting. I don't
remember much about the day except that Rula looked very friendly and Dennis looked a bit stern. Maybe he was just being sombre for the event. I took many photos which I've just found recently so here they are! I think that maybe they were both appearing at the Theatre Royal at the time so it should be easy to track
down the exact date.            Footnote: It appears that Dennis and Rula appeared in Cinderella in Plymouth in 1985 alongside Peter Purves.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Santa Claus Ship 1914

In November 1914, America sent a ship full of Christmas gifts for war orphans in Plymouth. American newspapers reported on 26th November that the 'Santa Claus Ship' was met with much joy and that Plymouth and Devonport had been festooned with decorations to welcome the Americans. Huge crowds gathered to greet the Jason as warships directed it into the harbour. Lord Kitchener sent a message expressing the army's gratitude which was read at a banquet to the ship's officers. America, at the time, were still neutral and the Christmas gifts were supplied to orphaned children of all troops, on both sides. The ship was loaded with 8,000 tons of gifts comprising of 5,000,000 separate articles which had been donated by American children and were destined for British, Belgian, French, German and Austrian children whose fathers were away fighting in the war. The ship was officially welcomed by Earl Beauchamp, the president of the council, on behalf of the government. He was accompanied by Mr F D Acland, the Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, together with a large gathering of naval and military officers. Among the greetings awaiting the ship was one from the Queen to the wife of the American Ambassador. In her letter, the Queen wrote: ‘I am anxious to express, through you, my warm appreciation of this touching proof of generosity and sympathy and to ask you to be so kind as to convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have contributed towards these presents, which will, I am sure, be gladly welcomed by the children for whom they are intended and received with gratitude by their parents.' The scheme was initiated by the Chicago Herald and a Mr O'Loughlin, who represented the journal, stated that 200 other newspapers throughout the United States had assisted in the project. As well as an enormous collection of toys, gifts also included shoes, boots, clothing, sweaters and stockings. So much was collected that 100,000 tons of presents had to be left behind. While the Jason was at Plymouth, gifts were left for British and Belgian children before the ship carried on its journey to Marsailles to deliver presents to
German children. It then continued on to Genoa to distribute gifts to further German and Austrian children. Gifts heading for Russia were loaded on to a different vessel. This story and many others can be found in my new book, 'Plymouth in the Great War,' which is available at all good bookshops.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Mary Newman and Saltash Passage

There's no evidence whatsoever that Mary Newman, the wife of Sir Francis Drake, ever lived in Saltash and almost certainly didn't live in the house known as 'Mary Newman's Cottage.' Her connections with St Budeaux are well known and she was married to Drake at the church at Higher St Budeaux on 4th July, 1569. Perhaps an article in the Western Morning News of Friday 24th May 1935 offers a more plausible answer to where Mary Newman might have lived. Reverend T.A. Hancock, the then vicar at Higher St Budeaux, was interviewed for the article about forthcoming celebrations connected with Drake. Part of the article reads:
'As far as I know, there is no real evidence of the fact that Mary Newman was residing at Saltash at the time of her marriage, he added, and pointed out that in Mr Bracken's 'History of Plymouth' it states that 'the frequent occurence of the name Newman in the registers indicates that her family were natives of St Budeaux, and accounts for her marriage in her own parish church.'
'My own personal opinion,' said Mr Hancock, 'is that Saltash in connection with Mary Newman, has been confused with Saltash Passage. Saltash Passage was in the ecclesiastical parish of St Budeaux, but in the civil parish of St Stephens-by-Saltash and in the county of Cornwall. Not only was Mary Newman married in St Budeaux Church but also her sister.' There are two buildings that come to mind that date to this period. One is the Ferry House Inn, which was built in 1575(six years after her wedding) and the other is the old barn off Normandy Hill. Whether Mary Newman ever stayed at either will probably never be known as records relating to her life are generally sparse.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Fair at Plymouth

Regular fairground attractions appear on Plymouth Hoe every year especially during the school holidays. The fair has been visiting this part of the city for well over 100 years. The original site was at West Hoe and popular rides back then included the Helter Skelter, the motor car switchback, the carousel and the swing boats. There were also rifle ranges, a coconut shy and stalls where you could throw a ball to win prizes. Many of the photos shown here come from Hancock's Fair which was touring in the late 1800s onwards. Hancock's Fair of 1910 included side-shows, roundabouts, switchbacks and competitions including a beauty show, a baby show and a wrestling match. Also appearing that year was Professor Bianchi who was described as 'the greatest foot equilibrist in the world.'
The fairground was destroyed by fire during 1913 as suffragettes protested against the arrest of Mrs Pankhurst. The Western Gazette of Friday 9th December 1913 reported:
'A large timber yard in Richmond Walk, Devonport, was totally destroyed by fire on Monday morning and great damage was done to property adjoining belonging to Hancock's World Fair. Suffragettes literature was found on the scene of the outbreak, which is the place where Mrs Drummond and other militants recently awaited the landing of Mrs Pankhurst from America, not knowing that she had already been arrested.
Some of the occupants of the World's Fair's vans had narrow escapes. Miss Hancock was in great distress on Monday. 'We are completely ruined,' she tearfully told a press representative. 'About £3,500 worth has gone and we have not a penny of insurance. Times have been very bad lately and we thought we might save the premiums. When the suffragettes were here to rescue Mrs Pankhurst, I said they were brave women and I got into trouble for it. I think now that they are only cruel, selfish women.'
Hancock's Fair must have recovered from their plight as reports in local papers show them still touring in the 1920s.
By the 1930s, the fair had a new venue but not all were in favour. In June 1935, the council deliberated about allowing the fair on the main part of the Hoe during Regatta week.
Alderman G Scoble stated: 'I have had a good experience of fairs and I have reached the conclusion that the public desires these fairs. Much of the sting of the old complaints has been removed. Instead of blaring trumpets, we will have the sweet music of amplifiers. There will be no nuisance except chip-potato paper and a few things like that. Seeing that we have a Lord Mayor now, we should celebrate the occasion properly with a fair on the Hoe. Nothing would be more enjoyable than to see members of this council on the hobby horses. If the fair is a necessary evil, let us have it on the Hoe.'
However, Alderman Cornish was less than happy with the proposal. He stated: 'If you have any sense of decency, you will not allow this orgy to be perpetrated on what visitors call one of the finest places in the world. An alternative would be to have the fair in the Guildhall Square.'
Alderman G P Dymond also objected stating: 'I remember the last time this fair was held on top of the Hoe, it was said 'Never again!' The disfigurement lasted so long that people were disgusted to think that we allowed the fair to take place on the Hoe at all.'
Other councillors protested about the 'hooliganism and loose play' at the fair on previous years but it was suggested that there should be full police supervision.
After listening to all of the arguments, the council, in its wisdom, decided to allow the fair to take place.
Over the years, the fair has lost none of its appeal and the rides featured are many and varied. Throughout the 1970s, one of the most popular touring fairs was Whiteleggs which will be remembered fondly by many.
As a kid I loved such rides as the dodgems, the cyclone, the waltzers, the big wheel and the big dipper but it would take a lot to get me on one of them nowadays!

Monday, 27 October 2014

Plymouth's Great War by Chris Robinson

My own book about Plymouth in the Great War came out recently and is now available in Waterstones, WH Smiths etc if you want to get a copy. It is also available at Amazon here.
In a day or so, Chris Robinson's book about the First World War, which is called 'Plymouth's Great War - The Three Towns in Conflict' is released and looks a stunning publication. It's packed with photos of Plymouth, the troops and the people of the city. Many of the photos haven't been seen in print before and, like all of Chris's books, it looks an incredible read.
I haven't seen a picture of the cover anywhere, so here's an exclusive. The book is 272 pages and will be published by Pen & Ink Publishing  on October 28, 2014, ISBN 978-0956985873.
I'm pleased to see another book, other than mine, about Plymouth and the First World War and I'm looking forward to reading it very much.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Stanley Gibbon's postal origins

I recently received a very interesting email from Jonathan Hill in Exeter. Although it's known that Stanley Gibbons was from Plymouth, little seems to be known about the origins of his stamp collecting business although it's recorded that his father, William, owned a chemist shop in Treville Street and that Stanley had an interest in stamps from when he was a boy and joined his father's business after the death of his eldest brother. His father encouraged his stamp collecting hobby and a stamp desk was set up within the chemist's shop.
Jonathan's email adds to the story:
'Hello Derek,
I was very interested to read your information about Stanley Gibbons
on your blog (
My father Geoffrey Hill, who was born in Plymouth in 1903, used to tell
me about the family's pawn broker's shop they had in Devonport. I
recall my father's grandfather (my great grandfather) was in partnership in the business with a man called Stanley Gibbons, when one day in the 1870s
a sailor came in through the door and threw a canvas kit bag onto the
counter. It was full of Cape triangular stamps. My great grandfather,
being only interested in jewellery, silver and similar antiques,
wasn't impressed, but Gibbons was. He bought the lot from the sailor,
eventually splitting from the business and going to London to set up
as a stamp dealer. I've never read this anywhere else. I haven't got
immediate access to the family tree (it's in storage somewhere), so I
can't say what my great grandfather's name was. I have no reason to suspect my father made this up and hope that one day I'll find out (and prove)
more! The family were antique dealers and pawn brokers in Plymouth
from Victorian times until the Blitz (where the family shop was totally destroyed!).
Best wishes, Jonathan Hill (Exeter).'

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Frankfort Gate

The area of Frankfort Gate, together with the nearby premises, was once a bustling shopping area for all the family. Today, it has been 're-branded' as the West End (probably by the same committee that re-branded Plymouth as 'the Ocean City') but was previously just called the 'bottom end of town' by many people. It's still reasonably busy but not so much as it once was.
In the late 1970s, the area, where Toys R Us stands today, was just cleared land which was used as an open car park for most of the time and on certain days, as an open air market. It sold a variety of items such as household wares, shoes, clothes, prints and mirrors featuring the images of Elvis, the Fonz or Starsky and Hutch or, if you were more classy, Southern Comfort. I'm sure that Chris Dawson had a stall there selling items from a large lorry.
Walking across the stretch of land led you to the Odeon Cinema in Union Street which, at the time, had a huge mural of Marilyn Monroe on its side (I wish I had a photo of it). The cinema was hugely popular together with the Drake and the ABC by Derry's Cross.

A zebra crossing took you across the road from the car park to Jack Cohen's Joke Shop. Every boy loved the shop which sold itching powder, stink bombs, inky soap and a variety of other practical jokes and pranks which were played on teachers and parents daily by naughty schoolboys. Jack served in the shop and was lovely to everyone. Further down the street was the Green Shield Stamp shop. Green Shield stamps were given away with everything including shopping and petrol. These were then stuck in a booklet and when you had enough, you could redeem an item from the shop which included things like garden gnomes, clock radios and teasmades as well as many larger items such as lawn mowers. The Co-op also issued stamps which could be redeemed for cash (50p for each book filled).
At the bottom of Frankfort Gate, was a shop selling collectable stamps which stood there for many years. Boys were very keen to collect stamps, as were adults, and apart from stamps the shop also sold albums and other related items. Shops selling collectable coins also traded in the area. Many of the common hobbies of the 1960s and 1970s have now long since died off.
Nearby was Universal Book Stores . They sold second-hand books but also took your old ones in part exchange for others. The great draw for kids was that they had many annuals as well as comics, including endless American ones, which featured superheroes such as Spiderman and Superman.
Then there was the Poster Shop which always seemed to have a poster of Debbie Harry in the window. As well as posters, they sold badges featuring the names of all the latest bands as well as various other stuff, some relating to the cartoon dog, Snoopy. The shop was open for many years. Many shops sold posters at the time and Pace Posters, now long forgotten, were very popular. These could be found in newsagents everywhere and adorned all kids' bedroom walls.
Further up was the London Camera exchange where you could sell or trade-in your old camera for a better one or exchange it for various lenses or other equipment. They also sold films, developed photos and sold other camera accessories. The shop was always full of camera enthusiasts, as was the nearby Wightman photography shop in Market Avenue.
On the corner, nearest the market, was the only charity shop I can remember in town at the time. Oxfam wasn't quite like it is today. It sold clothes as they were donated, none were washed, and the shop had its own peculiar pong. For people who enjoyed visiting, it was easy to find items or clothing dating, sometimes, back to wartime. The whiff of someone's old clothes was always a givaway on the bus back home which mixed with the smell of endless cigarette smoke (sometimes from the driver).
On the other side ot the street, as in Union Street, there were various second-hand shops selling things like old televisions, reel-to-reel tape recorders, cine projectors and records and record players. All redundant now due to the digital age.
Across the way, was the indoor market which was always incredibly busy and sold fruit and veg, clothes, pets, jewellery, collectables and knic-knacs. Many kids had a rabbit, hamster or budgie as a pet in the 1970s and the market was the place to get them. The second-hand record stall was very popular and records could be bought or traded in. The stall was there for at least thirty years and had a huge 'wanted' poster, featuring a cowboy and gun, requesting your old records.
Leaving the back door into Cornwall Street, a short walk took you to Woolworth's. Many items seemed to cost 6/6d and they sold everything you needed as well as paintings, one of the most popular being seagulls flying over a Cornish coast (only seen in doctor's waiting rooms nowadays!) I was reminded recently that Woolworth's also had its own photo booth and for 20p you could get a strip of four photos. There was always a queue for the machine but people weren't getting their photos taken for driving licences or passports, it was just the novelty of having your photo taken and seeing it instantly. The photo booth at Bretonside was equally as popular.
Leaving Woolworth's and heading back down to Frankfort Gate, there was just time to pop into Dewdney's to get a pasty. They came in one flavour (meat and potato) and there was always a cat sat in the window. A huge queue would lead out of the shop, which was always packed. It was one of the few fast-food shops of its day. It's just as popular today although the cat's long since gone.
Of course, the area has changed greatly over the years and many of the shops that were once there in the 1970s have gone forever. Today, there's more tattoo shops, takeaways, phone and computer shops and all the things needed for a modern life. Times change but many of the old shops are still fondly remembered.