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 Bonus Books. 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.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Derry's Clock and car park in the 1970s

Here's an interesting photo of the open-air car park beside Derry's Clock in about 1971 (please click on the picture to enlarge it). It's interesting to see all the old cars (all would now be classics) including Ford Prefects and Escorts, Morris Minors, Austin 1100s, Minis and many more.
It's interesting that the wrought iron entrance to the old underground toilets (or pissoirs as they were originally called) still survive in the photo even though they were bombed in the Blitz.
On the left can be seen Derry's Clock and, on the right, is the brick building housing the popular picture house, the ABC. The concrete wall in the middle of the photo was where the queues would form for the cinema when ever a popular film was on. The queue would stretch right back and around the corner. When I was a boy, I remember joining these queues several times to watch Roger Moore in Live and Let Die, Gary Glitter in Remember Me This Way and Clint Eastwood in Every Which Way Was Loose. Most were great films apart from the Gary Glitter one which was awful and my visit to see it is mentioned in my book, A 1970s Childhood.
Of course, the area today is under the Theatre Royal and its adjacent car park although it doesn't seem too long, to me, that it was all just like this. The older you get, the nearer the past seems!

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Memories of Glenn Miller

Deryk Maker kindly wrote to me recently with his memories of seeing Glenn Miller in Plymouth in 1944. I wrote about Glenn's visit to the city in a previous blog which can be found here:
I enjoyed reading Deryk's memories very much and I've reproduced his email here so everyone can enjoy reading them:

Hello Derek,
As it is now 70 years since I was lucky enough to attend the Glenn Miller concert at the Odeon Cinema in Plymouth on the 28th August 1944 you might be interested in my recollection of the occasion. At the time I was on a Engineering Cadetship course at the then Plymouth
Devonport Technical College, prior to entering the Navy.
I had heard that the concert was open to armed services personnel
only, so rather in hope than expectation I donned my Home Guard
uniform and cycled from my 'digs' in Milehouse down to Frankfort
Street where I was fortunate to not only gain entry to the cinema
packed mainly with US soldiers and sailors but also to stand against a
side wall close to the stage and with an uninterrupted view.

After so many years my memory of the whole programme is now rather
vague but it was my first unforgettable experience of seeing a really
big and famous band in action. I believe the band's lead singer Johnny
Desmond and close harmony singers The Modernaires or an equivalent
group appeared, and at least one of my favourite numbers Tuxedo
Junction, featuring the unison, bite and precision of the brass

section was played, while the distinctive mellow harmony of the saxes
and clarinet was also well in evidence, but whether that good example
of the latter sound, At Last was included I can't recall. The whole
atmosphere was electrifying and the capacity audience clapped, stamped and roared their approval.
The concert finished in the early hours and I emerged from the cinema

to find that my bike had been stolen! - No matter! As I wearily
trudged my way back to Milehouse I reflected on the musical thrill of
a lifetime that I had experienced. I often wonder whether any other
civilians managed to attend too!
Kind Regards,

Deryk Maker.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Smeaton's Tower's colour scheme

When the idea was first suggested to move the lighthouse from the Eddystone Reef to Plymouth Hoe, it wasn't popular with everyone. Many felt that it would ruin the look of the area and a obelisk already stood on the proposed site. The council turned down the idea three times but finally gave into the wishes of the people and the Trinity Board headed by the Duke of Edinburgh.
The Duke laid the foundation stone on the Hoe on 20th October 1882 and the lighthouse was opened to the public on Wednesday 24th September 1884.
Once on the Hoe, Smeaton's Tower was painted in the colours we see today, with a red lantern and red banded stripes. This colour scheme lasted until 1937, when it was decided a new paint scheme would be adopted to coincide with the coronation of George VI.

The Western Morning News of Tuesday 13th April 1937 reported on a council meeting discussing the matter:

Criticism of the plan to paint Smeaton Lighthouse green and stone colour was made by Mr Harry Taylor. Mr Taylor said the present colours of the lighthouse were known to thousands throughout the world and to paint it green and stone colour would alter the entire appearance of the tower. Mrs J Pook seconded. 'With all the alterations proposed on the Hoe, we shall hardly know the place presently,' she said. Mr P Ross defended the proposal and said the new colours would make it look more like a lighthouse. Mr Leatherby said at the moment the lighthouse looked more like a barber's pole.
A voice: 'Take it away, then.'
Mr Leatherby: 'I would, willingly, and I would take away a good many other monuments if I had my way.'

Mr Leatherby said the colours recommended would be more artistic.

The new colour scheme was adopted and lasted into the 1960s when the tower was repainted white with the lantern part painted red, some time during or before 1962. A black band was painted around the base of the lighthouse. This colour scheme lasted until the late 1970s but by 1980 (probably for the Drake 400 celebrations), the original red and white banded colour scheme, which we see today, was once more adopted.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Elephant swims the River Tamar

Here's an interesting photo from the Western Morning News of Monday 9th July 1923.
Under the headline 'Elephant swims Tamar' is the caption 'Julia, of Bostwick and Wombwell's menagerie, prior to swimming the Tamar, assisted in getting wagons on the ferry at Torpoint.'
It sounds an intriguing story. I'll try to find out more.
Searching through the newspaper archives, I've managed to find the story that goes with the photo and it's an interesting and comical one:
Western Morning News - Monday 9th July 1923.
During the transportation of Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie across the Hamoaze on Saturday, Julia, a fine female elephant, suddenly snapped her tether, and smashing through the gates of the ferry plunged into the water. She sank deep and for fully a minute and a half, there was no sign of her. The ferry proceeded on its way and just when hope had been given up, Julia's head appeared and she was seen swimming bravely for Torpoint.
When 20 yards from the shore, she heard her keeper's voice and, obedient to the call, turned and swam back towards the ferry. The tide was running strongly and Julia, battling with the current, seemed in danger of being carried away and drowned.
The aid of a steam pinnace was invoked but the captain, apparently misunderstanding what was required, tried to head Julia back to the Cornish shore. Nothing could persuade her to seek her own safety against the urgent call of her keeper, however, and the pinnace steamed to the ferry and took the menagerie on board.
The elephant refused all assistance but at length the keeper succeeded in lassoing her with a chain and the pinnace stood by.
Julia, never heeding, continued her swim and arrived at the Devonport shore apparently little the worse for her bathe.

Monday, 4 August 2014

A man and his son by the pier on Plymouth Hoe

This photo is another ebay bargain and shows a man with his son, pictured with the pier at Plymouth Hoe in the background. The photo must date from between 1937 and 1941 and the clues are all there. Up until 1937, the lighthouse was painted with red bands, much as it is today. However, in 1937, to celebrate the coronation of King George VI, the lighthouse was repainted green and stone, as it is in the background of this photo. The pier, of course, was destroyed in 1941 so it gives a good estimate as to when this photo was taken.
The pier in the background appears quite empty and it had been in decline for some time with much of its popularity being in the earlier part of the century.
It's a pity that it no longer exists. Some people would like to see it replaced but, of course, the project would be too costly so will probably, unfortunately, never happen.
There are many more photos like this one on my Flickr pages at