A bad week at the office

Postcard of RMS Edinburgh Castle arriving at Capetown.

RMS Edinburgh Castle. Photo: Arthur English Colour Prints (PTY) Ltd.

The R.M.S. Edinburgh Castle (1948 – 1976) was one in a long list of Union-Castle liners that serviced the mail run from England to South Africa for three quarters of the 20th century. We can tell by the angle of the sun in this image, and the choice of berth, that she has just arrived at Cape Town “down coast” from Durban, East London and Port Elizabeth. The doors in her side are already open to receive the gangway and two tugs, unseen on her port side, are pushing her towards the dock. Along with other ‘Castles’ she ran to a regular timetable. Like a bus service. Most of the time.

The message on the back of this card, posted in 1970, reveals that life in a shipping company didn’t always run to plan. Some of the people mentioned here are possibly still alive so I’ll use their initials only.

Dear A.,
We leave Capetown at 4p.m. today. Much delayed arrival yesterday after floods and engine trouble in East London. Its been quite a week for our agents what with a fire on Clan Macinnes, all the mailboats late and someone overboard on the Vaal. Spent the evening with R. H. yesterday. Due to our late arrival N. and I have missed each other but hope to have a quick word with him before we sail. Please excuse writing. I’m standing in Heerengracht [Street, Cape Town] with this balanced on my hand. Regards, R.

Poor ‘R’ was so stressed he didn’t know what month it was. He dated the card 2/7/70 (2nd July) but it should have been 2/9/70 (2nd September). The events he mentions didn’t happen until the last week in August. The Clan Macinnes had a fire in a cargo of charcoal off the S.W. African coast but managed to reach Walvis Bay safely. The now legendary case of ‘man overboard’ happened on 26th August when a male passenger fell from the S.A. Vaal and, against all odds, was rescued 11½ hours later after he was reported missing and the captain retraced the ship’s course.

Battleship cats (and rats)

In August 1941 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill embarked on a top-secret mission aboard the battleship H.M.S. Prince of Wales to rendezvous with American President Frankin D. Roosevelt at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. The accord reached by the two men at that meeting became known as the Atlantic Charter. A few trusted (and sworn to secrecy) media representatives were included in the official party, of whom H. V. Morton was one. Three days into the five day journey Morton decided to explore the ship. His visit to the engine room, “in the temperature of Trinidad”, was brief…….

Ascending with relief to more temperate regions, I was in time to be present at one of those domestic interludes which enliven the existence of a battleship, even in war-time.

Three Marines were holding three cats. They held them not as animal lovers, but as soldiers, as if cats were part of their equipment, as if, indeed, they might be ordered to “for inspection, port cats!”; which is precisely what they were doing. An officer came along and, having scrutinised the cats, solemnly dismissed them.

I was told the explanation. When the Prince of Wales returned from the shipyard after a brief refitment following the Bismarck action, a peculiar smell was noticed on one of the decks. This smell, increasing in volume and pungency, inspired two schools of thought: one, that the shipwrights had used some unusually penetrating glue or other material, the other, that one of the ship’s three cats had chosen an inaccessible hiding-place in which to expire. It was therefore decided to muster the cats and solve at least one of the theories which, as I saw, was happily unfounded.

Churchill and Blackie_2

Winston Churchill discourages ‘Blackie’ from following him on to the American destroyer alongside H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

Until her visit to the shipyard, I was told, the Prince of Wales prided herself on her ratlessness. But when she returned to duty a few rats had come aboard and action was immediately taken. It was proclaimed that any sailor who caught a rat would earn half a day ashore, and this made the life of a rat in the Prince of Wales a brief and hazardous affair. The business was arranged with the usual naval precision. Rats having been caught, the trappers were required to parade with them. An inspecting officer cynically remained until he had seen the rats faithfully destroyed. Then the trappers were able to qualify for their reward. I asked if anyone had thought it worth while to import such desirable quarry but I was answered with a stony and disapproving stare.
‘Atlantic Meeting’, H. V. Morton, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1943.

Four months later, on 7th December 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbour and America entered WWII. On 10th December H.M.S. Prince of Wales, along with H.M.S. Repulse, was sunk off Malaya by repeated Japanese aerial attacks. 327 men from Prince of Wales died, including Vice-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips and Captain John Leach. The fate of the cats is not recorded.

The politics of tourism

1925 postcard of Piazza Cordusio, Milan, Italy.

A postcard of Milan, Italy, registered in November 1925

From ‘Propaganda Boom’, A. J. Mackenzie, LL.B. The Right Book Club, London, 1938.
Fascist Italy set up in 1925 a special body for systematising ‘the healthy and advantageous employment of leisure’. Known as the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro, this organisation has grown remarkably, although membership is voluntary. For the student of propaganda, its chief interest lies in the political development of tourism for which it is responsible.

Tourism is now, as always, one of Italy’s major industries and no efforts are spared to attract foreign visitors. The organisation of the hotels on the ‘coupon’ system, under which travellers buy coupons in any one of five categories whenever they cross the frontier, is a boon to the holiday-maker, for constant inspection ensures that even the cheapest of these registered hotels are reasonably clean and comfortable. During the height of the bitter anti-British campaign [in Italy], readers of British newspapers were constantly being tempted by large and attractive State-sponsored advertisements to pay a visit to Italy. On the other hand, for years no Italian paper was permitted to publish articles dealing with the attractions of foreign holiday resorts.

An exception to this ban has now been made for Germany. In May 1937 a tourist agreement was arranged by Italy and Germany, and special concessions allowed visitors from each country to take with them a larger amount of money than is permitted when they are travelling to non-Fascist countries. The scheme is organised on the Italian side by the Dolopavoro, and in Germany by the ‘Strength through Joy’ movement which is building a special fleet of large ships to carry the 150,000 holiday-makers who go cruising under its auspices from Germany every year.

One of the ‘Strength Through Joy’ liners came into prominence in April 1938 when used as a polling booth on the high seas for German residents in Britain who wished to take part in the Austrian plebiscite.

Both organisations have a high propaganda value since State subsidies enable extraordinarily low fares to be charged. They cater for all classes, and undoubtedly enable the working classes to enjoy holidays which compare very favourably with those within the reach of British workers.

A Busy Day at Boulters Lock

Edwardian scene at Boulters Lock on the river Thames, England.

From a vintage postcard mailed in 1907

This chaotic scene at Boulters Lock on the river Thames near Maidenhead, England, may have been photographed on Ascot Sunday, when this popular part of the river was at its busiest in the late 19th/early 20th century. You can see moving pictures, filmed in 1926, at this British Pathe site.

The first lock was built here in 1772.

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury_close

Tuck’s Oilette. 1904

Very few English cathedrals have received the unstinted praise that has been bestowed upon Salisbury. It is well deserved. The beautiful and peaceful situation, the wonderful harmony of the building, and the marvellous spire are all most impressive, and charm the visitor. There is of course the greatest possible interest to be found in the study of the alterations and additions made to the Mediaeval cathedrals, but it is good to have at least one building that speaks, and that so beautifully, one thought.

…..in 1220 the building as we know it was begun, three alters being completed in 1225…. and in 1258 the whole building was finished, costing, at present value*, about half a million [£]. The spire was added about one hundred years later. Since then there have been renovations and restorations, and certain strengthening works, but the beautiful church has survived them all, and is substantially as its builders left it, the most perfect example of the period.

Salisbury_closeup

Publisher, J. Salmon Ltd. Artist, A. R. Quinton.

Features to be noticed. The beauty of the site, and the proportions of the building. No other church has stood on this site.
Spire: highest in England, and the most beautiful in the world; thickness of walls 2 feet to a height of 20 feet, and then only 9 inches; 23 inches out of perpendicular.
Number of windows is said to equal the days of the year; the pillars the hours; and the doorways the months.
‘Notes on the Cathedral’ [pocket guide book], W. H. Fairbairns, S. P. C. K., London.
* ‘present value’ – c. 1912.

Salisbury from Harnham Hill. Vintage Photochrom Celesque series postcard.

Salisbury from Harnham Hill. Photochrom card. Celesque series.

For a vertigo-inducing view of the famous spire from the outside, go to this recent feature in the Daily Mail.

Book your own tour of the tower (from the inside) on the Cathedral website.

Fleet Street

In the days when London had only one daily with a million readers it was calculated that at a certain time in its history the forests cut down for it would equal 17 Devons; today with its rivals it must have cut down forests as big as 17 Englands to spread its good and evil news. We must hope it is worth it.

Fleet street

c.1930

Fleet Street has transformed the face of the nation and set millions of people reading and thinking. It has made a new world of learners and seekers after truth, but it has built up the curse of gambling in the world and fed it hour by hour. It has filled Fleet Street with tipsters and astrologers, fortune tellers and fortune hunters, and has made a kind of journalism which will pay a swindler coming out of goal £10,000 to tell his story to the public he has swindled.

It has made the Fleet Street Army the most remarkable company ever got together. Bishops and statesmen, writers and dreamers, pugilists and footballmen, half-wits and no-wits, film stars and actresses, freaks and clowns: the stupidest man ever born is worth as much in Fleet Street as the wisest. Any morning we wake the newest tomfool is in the smart stunt paper, ready for a million breakfast tables. Mice and men, it is all the same today.
‘London’, Arthur Mee. Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 1937.

The caption on the postcard is less cynical – “Fleet Street is famous the world over as the journalistic centre of London. In or near it are the offices of nearly all the great newspapers and periodicals, where hosts of busy toilers are at work both day and night.” A scribbled note underneath says “Bridge is a Railway and before this is Ludgate Circus. Traffic typical.”

The circus marks the end of Fleet Street. It is crossed by Farringdon Street, covering the

Vintage postcard by L.L. of Ludgate Circus, London, c.1905.

c.1905

old River Fleet, which now discharges into the Thames from a pipe under Blackfriars Bridge. Arthur Mee writes “It seems never to have occurred to anyone that Ludgate Circus might be beautiful. Ever since the River Fleet was covered in on its approach to the Thames this supreme opportunity of a noble approach to St. Paul’s appears to have been thrown away.
Across the bottom of Ludgate Hill runs a railway which could easily be spared, serving two stations a few hundred yards apart.”

The bridge had been built in the 1860s by the London, Chatham & Dover Railway and was regarded as an eyesore by many from the start. It was finally “spared” (i.e. removed) in 1990. The last newspaper in Fleet Street moved out in 2016.

Artistic Licence

These two vintage postcards, published when London’s Admiralty Arch was still “new”, illustrate the liberties an artist could take with a scene compared to a photographer (in the days before Photoshop).

Admiralty Arch2

Tuck’s Oilette number 7975. One of a set of 12. First recorded use 1919.

In this view by H. B. Wimbush, Nelson’s Column has grown to a dizzying height and dwarfs the Arch. The domed tower on the right has not only been stretched but moved several hundred meters to the left. As you can see from the image below, it can’t actually be seen from this position at all. We can only speculate on why the artist put it there. It may have been simply to balance the composition. Digital photographers didn’t invent the art of bending reality – they were just catching up.

A vintage postcard of the new Admiralty Arch, London.

National Series. Published by M & L Ltd.

The truth is less exciting, although this image is so empty it must have been taken on a weekend in the off-season! Not much doubt about which card would have sold best. The message on the back of this one is more interesting than the front. The writer has dated it 16. 6. 16, although the last number has been over-written and could be 19. The message takes up all of the back so it must have been posted in an envelope, and we have no address for the recipient.

Dear Mrs Land,
Just had a note from Mabel to say she has settled down. Will try and get out to Richmond where she lives in a day or so. Everything went off just fine at the wedding and say – Tom Murray is a splendid fellow. Straight as you make them. Will see you soon as we are booked for U.S.A. on 28th this month. Have still the wee mascot so I’m safe.
Kind regards to Mr Land and self. A. R. Don.

It’s a tantalizing hint at the lives of several people and leaves more questions than answers. Was Mr. Don an American soldier being repatriated in 1919 after the war, or a private citizen braving the Atlantic U-boat menace in 1916? Whatever the case, he was superstitious enough to need a lucky charm. Did Mabel find it difficult to settle down and why, and was she the bride? Was the splendid Tom Murray the groom?

Maybe one of you fiction writers out there can exercise your own artistic licence, change the names, flesh out the characters, invent your own answers, and create a short story. I’m sure novels have been inspired by less.