Wearin’ the green


Bunches of Shamrock appearing on the flower-sellers’ baskets on March 17th are reminders that this is the festival of Ireland’s Patron Saint, the day when good Irishmen will be “wearin’ the green” in many lands. Baskets of shamrock are sent on St. Patrick’s Day by Princess Mary to be distributed to the Irish Guards quartered at the great military centre of Aldershot. Our photograph shows the Countess of Cavan presenting the shamrock to the Officers of the Irish Guards.

St.Pats_2The Irish Guards quartered at Wellington Barracks, London, also receive their St. Patrick’s Day gift of shamrock from Princess Mary. Our photograph shows General Sir Alexander Godley [right] presenting the shamrock on behalf of Princess Mary to the Officers of the Irish Guards. He afterwards placed a wreath of shamrock on the Guard’s Memorial, London, in memory of the Irish Guards who fell in the War.
‘Homeland Events’ series of cigarette cards by W.D. & H.O. Wills, 1927.

The Irish Guards can be distinguished from other Guards regiments by their tunic buttons which are arranged in groups of four.


Marconi’s “gadget”

In today’s interconnected world where communication can be constant and relentless, when it seems we can be in touch with anyone, anywhere at any time, it’s difficult to think ourselves into an era when we couldn’t (or didn’t want to).

MarconiThe Italian experimenter Marconi was not the “inventor” of radio, as is sometimes believed, and such a claim was never made by Marconi himself. The pioneering research into the phenomena of electro-magnetic pulsations or “waves” was done by scientists of many nations, including German, Italian, French, British, and American physicists; but Marconi had quite properly patented transmitting and receiving apparatus of his own design in 1896, and formed a company to sell the apparatus and the idea, at first specially for the transmission of messages over water – that is, principally for use in ships – in which, in the nature of things, wire-telegraphy was impossible.

It was for this reason that the name “wireless” came into use, as a dramatic description of a new kind of electric telegraph which could send signals by Morse code between ships out of sight of one another at sea, or between ships and the shore, far beyond visual or normally audible range.

Part of a chart illustrating the Morse Code alphabet.

For centuries seamen had been accustomed to being isolated from the rest of the world when they were at sea, with no method of communicating with other vessels or with the shore except by flag signals or semaphore or signal lamps within a visual range of, say, five miles at most, or by siren blasts, megaphones, and leather-throated singing out within directly audible range.

Signaling with flags.

But, in its early stages, wireless seemed of little use in the mercantile marine, in the everyday working of ships at sea. It was envisaged as an emergency method of sending or receiving signals of distress, which happily are very rare. In other words, it was only “a gadget”.

Cigarette card image of the Cunard ship RMS Caronia.The Caronia [in 1907] carried one wireless operator, who was a former Post Office landline telegraphist. He pottered about in the daytime and slept soundly throughout the night, and nobody paid much attention either to him or to his “fantastic instruments”. The name “wireless telegraphy” – also known as “marconigram signalling” – indicated to our minds something newfangled and unreliable, and not of much practical use.
‘Tramps and Ladies, My Early Years in Steamers’, Sir James Bisset with P.R. Stephensen, Angus & Robertson, 1959.

Marconi – cigarette card, Famous Men series by Carreras, 1927.
Graphics from ‘Brown’s Signalling’, 1954.
Caronia – cigarette card, Merchant Ships of the World, W.D. & H.O. Wills, c. 1923.

Trouble with Trams 2


Brooklyn, in this case, is a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand, not New York. The Evening Post report of 4th May 1907 continues….

A “roaring noise”, a rumbling, and finally a tremor of the earth made householders near the tramway line on the Brooklyn heights fear that an earthquake had visited them last evening, at about half-past five. The cause of the disturbance was a large electric car, of the new palace pattern, which left the rails while it was whirling down at terrific speed and plunged over a bank.


There were only four passengers, including one woman, Mrs. Eliza Bell, wife of Mr. Thomas Bell, a sheep-farmer of Murchison [South Island]. She was crushed under the frame. Her husband and the other passengers were cut and bruised, but were not seriously injured. Mr. Bell was taken on a stretcher to a neighbouring house, and received attention from Dr. Hogg, pending his removal later on to a private hospital. The other passengers dispersed, and were soon lost from view. The motorman, John Rea, and the conductor, Arthur D. Perkins, were dazed by knocks on their heads, and were taken home soon after the accident.

After rounding a curve….[the tram] swept along a straight strip for some distance, and then forsook the metalled way. The outside wheels scoured out a deep groove in the ballast for a dozen yards, and then the rear bogie was left behind. At this moment the car must have been turning on its side, on the slope of a bank, and after skidding about ten yards, the body was jolted from the front bogie, and the whole of the car body was pitched on its side, with the bottom towards the rails. Fragments of the lower woodwork were left along the hillside as the vehicle plunged over the earth.


A distracted driver, experienced but unfamiliar with that particular route, incorrect settings on a complicated triple braking system, damp rails on a steep incline, all combined to produce this result. It could have been worse. The Brooklyn line had a single track with sidings to allow trams to pass. Unable to stop and back up to the nearest siding, John Rea’s runaway was hurtling towards an “up” tram with forty people on board when it jumped the track. An inquest a week later, when the crew had recovered from their concussion, returned a verdict of accidental death on Eliza Bell.

The photographer here was Joseph “Zak” Zachariah (1867-1965), a man with the instincts of a photojournalist before the word was invented – “Things would happen at eight o’clock in the morning, and “Zak” would have the photographic record of it staring at you from his window before noon.”

Brooklyn Road has been widened and the corners modified but, for those of you who know Wellington, I think this spot is opposite where the Renouf Tennis Centre stands today.

Trouble with Trams

Driving hazards in 1934, when British traffic rules and road designs were still evolving.

Image from a 1934 cigarette card by W.D. & H.O. Wills. Safety First series.

Tramcars are built with a considerable amount of overhang at each end, and for that reason the ends swing out for some distance when they round a curve. Do not pass a tram when it is nearing a corner or crossing a junction, as its rear platform may strike the side of your car. It is not safe to rely on the driver giving the correct hand signal, and even if he does so the bulk of his vehicle will hide his hand from you. Never follow a tram closely for it is fitted with very powerful magnetic brakes and should it stop suddenly you may be unable to avoid a collision.

Image from a 1934 cigarette card by W.D. & H.O. Wills. Safety First series.Some towns have by-laws that compel all traffic to stop when a tram stops, so as to avoid danger to any passengers who may be entering or alighting from it. In other districts the procedure is left to the discretion of the motorist who may stop, proceed cautiously or pass the tram on the off side. Of these three alternatives the first is the safest, for among the tram’s passengers there may be an old person or an irresponsible child. Passing round the off side of the tram has its dangers as one may meet another tram proceeding rapidly in the opposite direction.

It is always inadvisable to motor along a tram track, for tramlines, especially if they are wet, are most “skid-provoking.” Often, too, the lines are worn to a sharp edge which cuts the tyres. If you have the misfortune to get your wheels caught in the tram track (as in the case illustrated), pull out gradually.

Image from a 1934 cigarette card by W.D. & H.O. Wills. Safety First series.

Grip the wheel firmly, but gently, and change the direction of motion as gradually as possible. Avoid use of the brakes, take your foot off the accelerator and press down the clutch pedal so that the car rolls along, for rolling road wheels, that have no power transmitted through them, do not skid.

Source: Safety First, a series of 50 cigarette cards issued by W.D. & H.O. Wills.

Edwardian Society in Sidmouth

From ‘The South Devon Coast’ by Charles G. Harper. 1907. (Abridged)

Before Torquay, Teignmouth, Exmouth, and other places had begun to develop, Sidmouth was a place of fashion, and the signs of that early favour are still abundantly evident in the town, which is largely a place of those prim-frontaged, white-faced houses we associate with the early years of the nineteenth century. It belongs, in fact, to the next period following that of Lyme Regis, and has just reached the point of being very quaint and old-world and interesting, as we and ours will have become in the course of another century.


And now, in this town which ought to be jealously preserved as a precious specimen of what the watering place of close upon a century ago was like, the restless evidences of our own time are becoming plentiful; older houses giving way to new, of the pretentious character so well suited to the age, and in red brick and terra-cotta.

Why, confound the purblind, batlike stupidity of it ! red brick is not wanted at Sidmouth, where the cliffs are the very reddest of all Devon. We need not give the old builders of white-faced Sidmouth any credit for artistic perceptions, for they could not choose but build in the fashion of their age, but, by chance, they did exactly the right thing here, and in midst of this richest red of the cliffs, this emerald green of the exquisite foliage, this yellow of the beach, deep blue of the sea, and cerulean blue above, planted their terraces and isolated squares of cool, contrasting whiteness. It was a white period, if you come to consider it, a time of book-muslin and simplicity, both natural and affected, and although Sidmouth was fashionable it was not flamboyant.

Sidmouth is in these days recovering something of its own. Not perhaps precisely in the same way, for the days of early nineteenth-century aristocratic fashion can never again be repeated on this earth. But a new vogue has come to it, and it is as exclusive in its new way as it was in the old; if not, indeed, more exclusive. More exclusive, more moneyed, not at all well-born, jewelled up to the eyes, and only wanting the final touch of being ringed through the nose. Oddly enough, it is a world quite apart from the little town; hidden from it, for the most part, in the hotels of the place. Most gorgeous and expensive hotels, standing in extensive grounds of their own, and all linked together in a business amalgamation, with the object of keeping up prices and shutting out competition.

It is not easy to see for what purpose the patrons of these places come to Sidmouth, unless to come down to breakfast dressed as though one were going to a ball, and dressing thrice a day and sitting in the grounds all day long be objects sufficient. From this point of view, Sidmouth town is a kind of dependence to the hotels, an accidental, little known, unessential hem or fringe, where one cannot wear ball-dresses and tiaras without exciting unpleasant criticism.

Bullion without birth, money without manners are in process of revolutionising some aspects of Sidmouth, and it is quite in accord with the general trend of things that the newest, the largest, the reddest, and the most insistent of the hotels should have shoved a great hulking shoulder up against the pretty, rambling, white-faced cottage in Woolacombe Glen*, where some earliest infant months of Queen Victoria were passed, and that it should have exploited the association by calling itself the “Victoria.”


Ladram Bay is reached either by cliff-top or along that tiring beach; or, greatly to be recommended above all other courses, by boat from Sidmouth, one of whose boatmen, with the pachydermatous hands that would scarce feel any effect from rowing fifty miles, will take you there if you give him a chance.

Ladram Bay was undoubtedly made expressly for picnics. There cannot be the least question of it. Geologists write profound things about the raised beach and the pebbles Triassic, Silurian, or what not jargon that compose it, but Nature most certainly in prophetic mood designed beach, natural arch, and caves for lunch and laughter, and as a romantic background for flirtations.

*Harper frequently referred to “Woolacombe” Glen and cottage in chapter 6 but the actual name was Woolbrook, after the stream, or brook, that flows through the glen. Curiously, he got that name almost right as “Woolabrook”. There is a Woolacombe Bay on the North Devon coast and a Woolcombe Lane off present-day Temple Street in another part of Sidmouth. Was it there in 1907?

Whatever the reason for his confusion, “Woolacombe” took root in Harper’s mind and made it all the way to print. Perhaps nobody else in the production line knew enough about Sidmouth to stop it. Woolbrook cottage, with additions, is now the Royal Glen Hotel.

The postcard of Sidmouth Esplanade probably dates from around the time it was sent – 1908 – but the registration number in the left corner shows the photograph was taken in 1887. The cream coloured York Hotel at left was built in 1807 and has since annexed neighbouring buildings to become today’s Royal York and Faulkner.

The senders of both cards gave their impressions of local weather.
From Sidmouth in January 1908 “We must be nearing the North Pole”.
From Ladram Bay in August 1907 (late summer) “The wind is a bit cold, but the waves are lovely”.


Living history

V_thresherHarvest has been a season for rejoicing from the remotest ages. There is every cause for rejoicing at harvest time where the marvellous machine shown is used; it cuts the crop, threshes, bags the grain, and ejects the straw – a little different to the sickle and flail, man’s first harvesting tools. The International Harvester Thresher shown is drawn by a tractor, which also supplies driving power to the machine.
This Mechanized Age. Godfrey Phillips Ltd, 1936.

The present generation, brought up with giant combine harvesters with air-conditioned cabs, would find it difficult to believe that, eighty years ago, this represented the latest technology in agricultural machinery. Thankfully, enthusiasts in many parts of the world are dedicated to preserving these “marvels” in working order, keeping history alive so we can have some idea of what life on the farm was like in the Old Days.

Restored 1929 Fordson tractor at a vintage machinery display.

This 1929 Fordson tractor looks similar to the one in the first image. It was rescued from a children’s playground and restored to its original condition.

All of these photographs were taken at a popular two-day vintage machinery show last weekend.

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There were tractors of almost every make and model in various stages of repair but this one was unique.

Old rusting tractor with seat replaced by an arm chair.

Some people take their restoration projects less seriously than others.

Riding a Thunderbolt

Mentioning New Zealand’s Centennial Exhibition in last Wednesday’s post reminded me of that prolific Land Speed Record breaker of the 1930s, Captain G.E.T. Eyston. It’s one of those word association things. The reason will become clear later.

George Eyston, a tall man with neatly trimmed moustache and round spectacles, didn’t fit the popular image of a daredevil race driver, yet his career encompassed every aspect of motorsport. In a set of fifty cigarette cards entitled ‘Speed’, produced in 1938, he was the only person to feature three times.


Speed of the Wind, unconventionally-designed car equipped with Rolls-Royce engine, has covered more miles in one round of the clock than any other. Manned by Captain Eyston and A. Denly, it achieved a distance of 1,964 miles at an average speed of 163.68 m.p.h. on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, although the track was soggy after an unusually rainy season. As the car sped round on the glistening salt, the track became softer and softer and driving became more difficult, but the two intrepid drivers carried on till the record was won.
Albert Denly (1900-1989) had broken numerous speed records on motorcycles and was Eyston’s chief mechanic and reserve driver.

Eyston_flyingCaptain Eyston is a great believer in the future of the heavy-oil engine and demonstrated on Flying Spray the potentialities of this type. In 1936 he beat the World speed record for Diesel-engined cars with a mean speed over the flying start kilometre of 159.1 m.p.h. and over the flying start mile at 158.87 m.p.h. His visit to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1937 was remarkable for the fact that he took two cars with him and successfully attacked different records with both of them, thus completing a speed “hat trick.” In appearance, the car is very like his famous long distance record breaker, “Speed of the Wind.”

The resemblance is understandable because it was, in fact, the same car with a different engine. The caption writer was a little confused. Eyston took two engines, not two cars, to Bonneville. As MotorSport magazine explained after an interview with Eyston in 1974 – front-wheel-drive was used for “Speed of the Wind”, Eyston’s very successful record car, which had a 21-litre Rolls-Royce Kestrel aero-engine and was also used with an ex-Air Ministry 19-litre Ricardo diesel engine. ….
Both engines were used at Utah, being changed out there, the c.i.-engined [diesel] set-up being named the “Flying Spray”.

Then came ‘Thunderbolt’ – and the connection to New Zealand.


Thunderbolt is the fastest car in the World. Captain G.E.T. Eyston drove this giant car at a speed of 357.53 m.p.h. on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, on September 16th, 1938, thus breaking John Cobb’s record of 350.2 m.p.h. which was set up the day before. Thunderbolt weighs over 7 tons and is more than 30 ft. long. It is fitted with two 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce engines set side-by-side behind the driving seat. The enormous power is transmitted through a three-speed gear box to a final bevel drive without differential.

Although Cobb regained the record soon afterwards, at 368 m.p.h., ‘Thunderbolt’ was taken to the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and exhibited as a winning example of British engineering. It had a short stay before being shipped to Wellington for the Centennial Exhibition (despite the outbreak of war in Europe) where it went on display on 10th January 1940.

When that exhibition closed four months later, it was decided to keep ‘Thunderbolt’ in one of the buildings, which had been taken over by the Air Force, until the end of hostilities. By September 1946, Eyston’s record breaker had been joined in storage by several De Havilland Tiger Moth aircraft, surplus furniture, and £70,000 worth of baled wool due for export. At around 3 a.m. on the 25th the wool caught alight by spontaneous combustion, starting a fire that could be seen for miles and destroying the entire building. Thunderbolt’s charred remains lay rusting in the open into the 1950s before eventual burial in the Wellington landfill.

You can watch this newsreel of Eyston and Thunderbolt on Youtube.