DUNSTABLE AND DISTRICT
LOCAL HISTORY SOCIETY
PAST EVENTS

2022
Jan 11

M1 Construction

A film about the construction of the M1 motorway in 1958 and 1959 was shown to members of the history society at the January meeting.
It was the first motorway to be built in Britain, beginning at Luton and journeying north for 55 miles. The enormous scale of the project was impressive even by today’s standards and the road’s builders had to overcome additional problems caused by flooding during a particularly wet summer.
The film had an extra historic value because it illustrated just how much life has changed in the last 60 years. Steam trains were visible as the motorway was created alongside the railway, communications were by shortwave radio and pioneering use was made of a helicopter to monitor progress.
The film was produced on behalf of the company led, since the early 1900s, by John Laing. He was knighted in 1959 and died aged 99 in 1978. Sir John was an active Christian and his company rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962. Many of the houses in west Dunstable were erected by the Laing business, which donated the land on which the Langdale evangelical church was built.
The film was made available to the society by local man John Clark, a former engineer and designer with Laing’s, and was introduced to the audience by another former Laing employee, John Stevens, who is a member of the history society committee.

Feb 8

The Old Inns of England

Photographs of historic Inns of England were shown by David Deller at the society's February meeting. His display ranged from some of the famous buildings in London to more-local hostelries such as the Cooper's Arms in Hitchin, the King's Arms in Aylesbury and the Peahen in St Albans.
The White Horse in Hockliffe, now open as a tea-room, and the Sugar Loaf in Dunstable, illustrated by a photo used to advertise the hotel in Worthington Smith's 1905 history book, were also featured.

Mar 08

The Story of Totternhoe

Historic photographs of Totternhoe were screened to members of the society at their March meeting. The pictures had been assembled over many years into two scrapbooks by society member Joan Curran but had then been mislaid. When they were rediscovered they were scanned into a Powerpoint presentation which was to have been the subject of a society meeting some 18 months ago.
This was cancelled during the Covid lockdown and then Joan died unexpectedly.
A new commentary for the display has been researched by Ross Martin, a long-time resident of the village who is chairman of he Totternhoe Memorial Hall management committee and has a wealth of local knowledge and anecdotes.
The photos included snapshots of tea shops in quieter times when the village was a week-end tourist venue, a view of a bus stranded in a snowdrift on Lancot Hill in 1927, scenes of Totternhoe Knolls before the hills were covered by trees, and a remarkable number of post offices.
There was a capacity audience at Dunstable Methodist Church hall for the presentation, which was so popular that it is likely to be repeated at Totternhoe at a date to be arranged.

April 12

Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway

An extension to the narrow-gauge railway at Leighton Buzzard, taking the route further towards the area known as Double Arches, was completed by Spring 2022.
The story of the work involved and the race against time, after Brexit, to qualify for a Euro-grant towards the cost, was told to members of the history society at their April meeting.
Nick Hill, who has worked as a volunteer at the railway since 2005, showed a series of photos of the railway's many historic locomotives and talked about the track's origins in 1919, carrying sand from the quarries at Heath and Reach. It utilised material from Woolwich arsenal which had a vast surplus stock assembled for the trench-railway system in the First World War battlefields.
When the quarry system closed, volunteers in 1968 started operating passenger steam trains over the railway and this tourist attraction has continued to expand ever since. Trains travel round sharp bends, climb steep hills and pass through level crossings on Leighton's roads. It is now listed as one of England's leading narrow-gauge working museums.

2021
Sept 14

Yesteryear

Photos of Old Dunstable presented by John Buckledee

Oct 12

Villages of North Beds

A journey in photos around the picturesque villages of North Beds was viewed by members of the history society at their October meeting.
David Warner talked about such places as Harrold, where the village lockup is still preserved, and Stevington, whose Baptist Church is one of the oldest in England.
An old barn at Shelton was used as a concert hall during the war (the remains of a stage curtain was still, dangling from the rafters when Mr Warner took his photos) and the church there has a stuffed owl in the roof which was placed there years ago to keep bats away. Felmersham’s astonishingly large church still contains an ancient bier on which coffins could be wheeled into church for funerals. In Yelden a memorial remembers two youngsters from the village who were killed when an aircraft crashed there in 1944.

Nov 9

Birth of a Community

An object lesson in local research was given to Dunstable and District Local History Society by Alan Campbell and Richard King, who had decided to delve into the history of their own community at Sundon Park in Luton.
They followed the story of the area’s transformation from farmland to the present conurbation by tracing documents held at the records office in Bedford, the minutes of council decisions kept at the local library, the electoral registers and (of course) the files of The Luton News. They also had their own extensive local knowledge and, as a bonus, were permitted access to the records kept by the Skefko ball-bearings company.
Among the photographs shown at the history society’s meeting were a victory procession in Sundon Road in 1945 when it was still a little country lane. Another photo showed a fancy-dress parade which included the young Ivor Clemitson, who later became a popular MP in Luton and who is commemorated by a stained-glass window in Harlington Church. Also pictured was the old Favourite public house, whose unusual name recalled Charlotte Clayton, Lady Sundon, who was a favourite of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, in the early 1700s.

Dec 14

War-time Dunstable

The front page of a 1940 Dunstable Gazette in the week that a German aircraft machine-gunned the high street was shown at the December meeting of the history society. It provided an example of the desperate ways in which journalists sought to report the news while still obeying war-time censorship. The talk, by David Underwood and John Buckledee, included archive photos and militaria from David’s collection including an air-raid siren in full working order.
One of the many little-known anecdotes which emerged from the meeting was information about an American fighter aircraft which crashed into the front gardens of the Chequers Cottages – the buildings for Whipsnade Zoo employees facing the village common – on October 9 1943. The pilot, Major Glen Hagenbush, was killed. He had been flying his Curtis P40E Warhawk from Bovingdon airfield and is now buried in Illinois USA. The crash was not reported in local newspapers at the time, probably because of war-time censorship, but a photo of the scene was subsequently traced by David Underwood.
An eye-witness description of the crash was written by Mrs Irene Hurst, who had been changing her clothes when the wing of the plane hit her bedroom window. Irene’s daughter, Mrs “Twink” Bunker, says her mother tried to help the pilot and then men from the RAF, based in a hut nearby, ran to the scene and took over. The RAF operated a little war-time radio station on top of the hill behind the cottages, near the zoo fence, on what became the village cricket ground.
One other result of the December talk was information about another incident at Whipsnade but this has been found to date to a pre-war display at Hendon Air Pageant by RAF officer “Whippy” Nesbitt-Dufort. He had been flying back to base when his engine failed high over Bedfordshire and he made a forced landing on the nearest-available field. He then learned that he had come down inside the zoo’s rhino paddock, hence his subsequent nickname.

2020
Jan 14

Victorian Action Man

The story of Colonel Frederick Burnaby, a Victorian soldier and adventurer, was told by Julie Chandler to the January meeting of the history society, where members welcomed as special guests the Mayor and Mayoress of Dunstable, Cllr and Mrs Syd Abbott.

Colonel Burnaby’s’s exploits made him famous in his day but, extraordinarily, he is now largely forgotten. There is a stained-glass window in his memory in the church at his home-town of Bedford, where his father was Rector, and a pub there is called the Burnaby Arms.

Fred was a giant of a man, both in personality and physique (his famous party-piece was to wrap a steel poker around someone’s neck!) and he earned rapid promotion in his regiment, the Horse Guards. Army officers in peacetime could have lengthy holidays, and he used his leave to set off on various private expeditions, including a dangerous 900-mile journey in wintertime through Russian-held territory to the Khiva Khanate in Central Asia and another 1,000-mile journey on horseback through Asia Minor, where he gathered intelligence about a forthcoming war between Russia and the Ottoman empire.

He was a pioneer in hot-air ballooning and became the first person to make a solo flight by this means across the English Channel, where a change in wind direction blew him perilously off-course. He wrote about his adventures in a number of best-selling books and achieved further fame in a General Election when he stood, unsuccessfully, for the Parliamentary seat held by Joseph Chamberlain. He was killed in 1885 while leading a Camel Corps at the Battle of Abu Klea, where British troops on their way to help the besieged General Gordon at Khartoum were met by a large Sudanese army.

Feb 11

Aspects of Ashridge

The story of Bridget Talbot, who spearheaded efforts to preserve Ashridge as a National Trust estate, was told to a large audience of history society members by John Hockey.

John, a history society member himself, had gone to considerable trouble to amass facts and photographs about Ashridge and Miss Talbot’s extraordinary life. She was born at Little Gadsden in 1885 to a wealthy and well-connected family and used her influence to support numerous good causes. She loved Ashridge and when its owner, Earl Brownlow, died in 1921 it seemed inevitable that the estate would be broken up and sold.

Miss Talbot enlisted the support of such powerful politicians as Stanley Baldwin, Lord Asquith and Ramsey MacDonald to make it possible for Ashridge to be saved for the National Trust. She also used in her influence in Westminster (she once organised a pageant in Downing Street!) to ensure that her invention of a waterproof torch was fitted as a standard part of lifejackets issued to the Merchant Navy, Royal Navy and the RAF.

Miss Talbot was awarded the OBE in 1920 for her work with the Red Cross, particularly during the First World War when she aided the wounded in Italy. She had a memorable personality – John described her as a mixture of Joanna Lumley and Margaret Rutherford – and one of her eccentricities was using emulsion paint to alter the colour of her cars whenever she felt like a change.

She died in 1971 and her ashes were scattered over the stream on the grass path between Edlesborough and Ivinghoe where she loved to walk. There’s a memorial stone on the spot today.

Mar 10

Bigamy, Bankruptcy, War and Divorce

The discovery of a collection of love letters written by the landlady of the Sow and Pigs, Toddington, during the First World War led researchers to unravel the story of her complicated life.

Helen Nelson’s first husband, who had inherited a fortune, spent it all very rapidly and then disappeared leaving a host of debts. Helen had to start again. She married (bigamously) a horse dealer and then, when he went to Canada on business, fell in love with an auctioneer, James Franklin Smith, from Dunstable.

Her story was so interesting that it led to the publication last year of a book, Bigamy, Bankruptcy, War and Divorce, by Richard Hart and Paul Brown.

Paul Brown talked about the book at the March meeting of the Dunstable History Society and revealed that some of Helen’s surviving family had now been traced. They are living in Germany and contacted Paul via his publisher after noticing some details about the book on the internet. They have been able to provide some glamorous photos of Helen taken in her younger days and are so fascinated by her story that they had intended to travel to Dunstable to hear Paul’s talk. Disappointingly, worries about the Coronavirus and problems with airline travel caused them to call off their visit.

2019
Jan 8

Bedfordshire’s Garden History

A beautiful series of pictures showing local gardens as they have evolved over the centuries was shown to the history society by Felicity Brimblecombe, secretary of the Beds Garden Trust.

They included depictions of the work of Capability Brown at Wrest Park, Ampthill Park, Southill Park and Luton Hoo, together with Humphrey Repton’s transformation of the grounds at Battlesden.

At Northill the gardens combined a series of fishponds with a rabbit warren and at Someries Castle near Luton the extent of the gardens are indicated by the earth mounds surrounding the surviving brick walls. At some gardens vegetables began to be grown throughout the winter under glass, which is the origin of the word “greenhouse”.

Feb 12

Man on the Spot

Former broadcaster Bill Hamilton talked about his 50 years in journalism to the February meeting of Dunstable History Society.

Bill began his career as a trainee reporter on the local weekly newspaper at Fife before moving to an evening newspaper and then becoming a reporter for Tyne Tees Television.

This led to a job as a correspondent for the BBC where the many international stories he covered included the earthquake in Algeria, the civil war in Mozambique and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. His work is particularly remembered for a series of reports about the plight of orphaned children in Stalinist Albania which prompted an aid campaign supported by Albanian-born Mother Teresa and the country’s favourite film star, Norman Wisdom.

Bill’s life-long passion for football led to his voice being heard every week reading the Saturday afternoon results, in the days when nearly everyone did the football pools and waited eagerly to hear if they had won a fortune. He has also been a football referee for many years and the pitches where he has been match official include Dunstable Town’s home at Creasey Park.

Mar 12

On the Ball

The highs and lows of Dunstable Town Football Club since its foundation in 1883 were described by Alex Alexandrou at the history society’s March meeting.

The club lost its first match, against Luton Montrose, by four goals to three. But it was an ill-tempered game and Dunstable complained afterwards that the referee was incompetent and asked for the match to be replayed. But the result stood.

Alex displayed a team photo of Dunstable Town, taken during the 1895-96 season. A notable feature of the picture was that every player was wearing startlingly different socks, in contrast to their otherwise immaculate kit.

Another photo included Dunstable player Peter Pieraccini, who joined the army during the First World War and was killed in action in 1916.

The club’s first pitch was in a field off Bull Pond Lane. The Town FC then had its own ground at Kingsway and then moved to its present base at Creasey Park, named in honour of Alderman Walter Creasey who had been particularly influential in finding the club a new home.

Famous players at Creasey Park have included Jeff Astle, Tony Currie, Paul Bastock, Kerry Dixon and, of course, George Best, who appeared in two games at the ground thanks to his long-standing friendship with Town manager Barry Fry. Around 10,000 people arrived to see those matches, and there was a particular drama before one of them because George Best’s car broke down on the motorway and he was late arriving. The referee agreed to delay the start of the game.

The club had an amazing run of success in 2012-13 when it did not lose a match in the entire season. This is an “Invincibles” record which has been achieved by only two other clubs in senior football: Preston North End and Arsenal.

The club, after a number of difficulties in recent years, has reinvented itself as a Community Pathway Club, forging links with a number of local schools and encouraging the formation of new junior teams of varying experience and ability.

Alex’s talk was followed by the history society’s annual meeting, at which a presentation was made to Ron Frith, who had decided to stand down from the committee. He was one of the founder members of the society, formed in 1991.

April 9

King Henry’s Cathedrals

The original Augustinian monastery in Dunstable was closed by order of King Henry VIII and demolished in 1540. The present Priory Church is all that remains of what was once a much larger collection of buildings. The foundations of these still exist, hidden under Priory Meadow.

Tony Woodhouse, who has produced numerous drawings and paintings of the vanished monastery based on historical records and archaeological surveys, talked to the society about the Priory and about the king’s plans for the future organisation of the Church in England.

The demolition of the Priory had been delayed for some years because King Henry’s original plan was to convert the monastery into a cathedral, as part of his reorganisation of the Church in England. Tony Woodhouse, in a talk to Dunstable History Society last week, screened a plan kept in the archives at Hatfield House which shows how new buildings were to be erected in Dunstable to accommodate the extra staff needed to run the cathedral.

Tony believes that the present Priory House would have been incorporated into this new complex and extended as far as what is now the KFC outlet. A comparison of measurements on the plan with measurements of medieval doorways in Priory House seems to support this theory.

Alas, King Henry’s project ran out of money, so Dunstable never achieved city status.

Townsfolk later used the rubble from the monastery buildings as the basis for later construction work, and the old stonework can still be seen in the walls of many old houses in the town centre.

May 14

Invasion 1940 – What If?

German documents detailing plans for the invasion and occupation of Great Britain in 1940 were described by Tony Eaton at the history society’s May meeting. The German aim was to transport thousands of troops across the Channel using a fleet of converted barges towed by larger vessels.

Military historians today believe that the operation would have been a disaster for the Germans. The Royal Navy at the time had around 80 destroyers and these would have decimated the invading fleet, defended by only seven German destroyers. Many of the clumsy barges, setting off without any element of surprise, would not have survived the voyage. Any remaining soldiers would have had to attack beaches which, by late 1940, were heavily defended.

In fact, the plan was so unrealistic in view of the overwhelming power of the Royal Navy that historians believe that the assembly of a huge invasion force on the Continent was just a ruse - part of Hitler’s plan for a bloodless victory, using subversion and threats to persuade Britain to sue for peace. The Germans had been so confident that this would happen that documents were prepared giving orders about how the country was to be governed and who among the British might be prepared to co-operate.

But as the months passed, with Britain boosted by the exploits of the RAF in the Battle of Britain and with the bombing of civilian targets failing to break British morale, Hitler abandoned his invasion plans. Ultimately, said Tony Eaton, his failure to carry out his threat was a silent victory for the Royal Navy.

Sept 10

1812 And All That

When George Darwall inherited a large wooden trunk full of naval artefacts from Napoleonic times it led him to research the fascinating career of one of his ancestors.

The trunk contained a sword, two flintlock pistols, a sextant, telescope and other equipment which had been owned by John Chennell when he served in the Royal Navy from 1812.

The trunk included a set of logbooks which helped Mr Darwall to trace the adventures of the young midshipman, who joined the fleet when he was just 16. The story was told to Dunstable history society at its meeting last week.

John Chennell, initially aboard HMS St Domingo, did not become involved in the great sea battles against the French. Instead, he was part of the fleet sent to subdue the fledgling United States of America, which had declared war on Great Britain and had sent its army to invade Canada.

His ship’s main actions were in Chesapeake Bay, close to Washington, including an expedition when British forces rowed 40 miles upriver to surprise and capture four US frigates.

Midshipman Chennell was later aboard a ship which became a spectator of events after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo when the Emperor, aiming to reach the United States to continue the war, eventually gave himself up to the Royal Navy.

Oct 8

Impromptu talk from John Buckledee.

Nov 12

Striking Your Own Money

Traders in earlier times had a problem when customers presented large-denomination coins to pay for goods, and then expected some change. The trouble was that lower-value coins were not provided at that time by the government.

Shopkeepers found a solution by producing their own tokens for change which could then be used fore future payments. Many thousands of different tokens were produced in the 17th century until King Charles II ordered a nationwide issue to be minted.

One of the leading experts on tokens, Trevor Owens of Dunstable, displayed numerous versions of the coins at the November meeting of the history society. He concentrated on showing examples from Bedfordshire, including many from Dunstable, and added details about his researches into the background of the individual shopkeepers.

Edward Chester, for instance, was a baker whose shop was near the Raven Inn in North Street (High Street North), Dunstable. He issued a half-penny token in 1663. William Element was a brazier, Daniel Finch was a grocer and Daniel Fossey, whose token showed a greyhound, had a shop in Middle Row. William Fossey, whose token showed a swan, was a maltster, John Whitley was a draper and Nathaniel Wimpew, whose die-struck illustration showed a deer, was the landlord of the White Hart in North Street.

Dec 10

500 years of dance

A history of community dancing from the measures of Shakespeare’s time to the quadrille of the 1800s were described and demonstrated by Mike Riff at the history society’s Christmas meeting.

The quadrille became so popular that Lewis Carroll was able to introduce a “lobster quadrille” to Alice In Wonderland in full confidence that his readers would understand the joke. Mike and his dance partner Alex, in appropriate costumes, demonstrated the steps of each dance from the stage at the Methodist Church hall and provided music, commentary and a Powerpoint presentation especially devised for the history society.

These included excerpts from the famous dance scene in Pride and Prejudice and the descriptions by Samuel Pepys of ballroom fun in the days of King Charles II.

Mr Ruff had also taken the trouble to search the records of the Vaughan Williams Library for information about Dancing Master Wilson, the influential choreographer and author, who is said to have been born in Dunstable.

2018
Jan 9

First Citizen

John Chatterley screens some of the numerous photos he has taken of Dunstable events, and talks about the work of the town's Mayor. He was himself Mayor in 2013-14.

Dunstable became entitled to have its own Mayor when it gained borough status in 1864. Since then, despite various changes in the powers of local government, the town continues every year to elect its own First Citizen.

Councillor John Chatterley, who was Mayor in 2013 and 2014, was the guest speaker at the history society's January meeting. He had prepared a talk especially for the society about the history of the Mayoralty and had managed to assemble photographs of every past Mayor, which he displayed to the packed audience.

His stories about local civic leaders who have left their mark on the town in numerous ways included the career of Walter Creasey, who owned the Halfway House and Old Palace Lodge hotels and whose name is commemorated at Creasey Park, and John Dales, owner of the famous Dales Dubbin factory, whose daughter Lucy also became a councillor and in 1925 was elected the borough's first female Mayor.

Feb 13

Two Artists in Bedfordshire

David Turner features the work of the artists George Shepherd and Thomas Fisher who produced scenes of Bedfordshire in the early 19 th century.

When the gardens at Battlesden House, near Hockliffe, were transformed by the great landscape designer Humphry Repton, their proud owner commissioned a painting of the scene, featuring his family dressed in the finest of fashionable clothes.

The watercolour artist was George Shepherd, whose many paintings of local scenes were the subject of a talk to the history society by David Turner.

The Battlesden painting is particularly fascinating because it also includes the figure of a gardener who is almost certainly the young Joseph Paxton, whose first job was at Battlesden House and who went on to become a significant designer himself.

Mr Turner's talk also covered the local work of another artist, Thomas Fisher, so the history society audience was treated to a wide-ranging display of views of this area as it was some 200 years ago. These included Toddington Manor (“Cheney's Palace”!), Totternhoe's stone quarry, Houghton House, Luton's Park Street, the lawn behind Mr Brown's house at Dunstable (ie Grove House Gardens), Lewsey farm, Sundon windmill and Dunstable's Ashton almshouses showing the punishment stocks outside.

The talk included numerous anecdotes about the paintings, including the story of a massive storm in May 1924 which severely damaged Moor End watermill in Eaton Bray.

Mar 13

John Benet's Chronicle

John Benet, a local clergyman in the 15th century, produced a diary of events which is now an invaluable source for historians. Stephen Williams screens pages from the original manuscript and also talks about Benet's famous local contemporaries who included composer John Dunstable and church ambassador John of Wheathampstead.

Four local men, all named John, who may well have known each other and whose learned interests and patronage made this area an intellectual enclave in the 15th century, were the subject of a talk by the Rev Stephen Williams to the Dunstable history society.

John Dunstable was an innovative composer whose work was a revelation in its time. His music was enormously popular and when he died in 1453 he had become a wealthy man. Mr Williams played examples of his compositions, including a setting of words written by John of Wheathampstead, who became an influential abbot of the monastery at St Albans in 1420.

The abbot’s lost grave was discovered last year during building work at St Albans Abbey. Three rare papal seals, which he had brought back after an official visit to Rome, had been buried with his body.

Clergyman John Benet, of Harlington, kept a chronicle of events between 1399 and 1462. His manuscript, which Mr Williams has examined in Trinity College library, Dublin, is now a valued source for research by historians.

Apr 10

Failed To Return

Popular speaker Tony Eaton talks about the fatal flights of pioneer Amy Johnson and film star Leslie Howard, who crashed in the sea and whose bodies were never recovered.

Theories about why six German fighter planes shot down a civilian aircraft, flying in daytime from a neutral airport (Lisbon) during World War Two, were outlined by aviation expert Tony Eaton at the society’s April meeting.

On board the aircraft was the famous film Leslie Howard whose death, along with everyone else on board, caused an international outcry.

Howard’s anti-Nazi films had particularly annoyed the Germans and he had probably used his visits to Spain and Portugal to deliver secret messages from Britain to the Fascist leader General Franco. Had the Luftwaffe deliberately set out to ambush Howard’s plane?

Another possibility was that German agents in Lisbon had mistaken Howard’s rotund, cigar-smoking manager for Winston Churchill, and this had led to a misguided mission to assassinate the British Prime Minister. To add to this theory, Howard (from a distance) looked like Churchill’s regular bodyguard.

A further theory was that the Nazi’s wanted to murder the Jewish businessman Wilfred Israel, another passenger on the plane, who was successfully arranging for German scientists to flee to America. Israel was among those who died in the ambush.

The rumours surrounding Howard’s death will not die away because of the continuing refusal by British authorities to release classified documents about the incident

There is no such secrecy about the war-time death of the famous aviator Amy Johnson, whose plane, many miles off-course, crashed into the sea near the Thames estuary. She had been piloting an aircraft from Blackpool to Kidlington, but her planned route was covered by thick cloud and she became lost. Tony Eaton suggested that Amy, with no radio and unable to spot landmarks on the ground to get her bearings, did not realise she was over the sea when she eventually ran out of fuel. She parachuted into the water but she could not swim and the water was desperately cold. The captain of a nearby ship, who was lowered into the sea in a rescue attempt, died from exposure as a result

May 8

The Rebel Preacher

Jeremy Walker tells the tale of the turbulent life of Edward Harrison, who served in the Parliamentary garrison at Newport Pagnell during the civil war and who, as a well-known leader of non-conformist religion, was famously appointed to replace the vicar of Kensworth.

The village of Kensworth, near Dunstable, became a centre of non-conformist religion during the turbulent times of the English Civil War.

People from miles around flocked to attend open-air services at a place, as yet unidentified, known as Dell Hole. The Vicar of Kensworth, the Rev John Syndall, vigorously fighting against the changes, found himself a centre of controversy and he was eventually replaced by the Baptist preacher Edward Harrison, who had served with Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces.

The story of Harrison’s influential career was told to the history society by Jeremy Walker, who described the waves of legally endorsed persecution which Harrison endured following the death of Cromwell.

An example of the bitter divisions of the time still remains today inside the tranquil parish church at Kensworth, where the list of past Vicars does not include Harrison’s name...as if, said Pastor Walker, he has been air-brushed out of its history

The talk was the last in the history society’s current series of lectures. During the summer the society is organising outings to the Palace House museum at Newmarket and the Sitwell family home near Towcester, details of which are on the society’s website.

Sept 11

The Perfect Playground

Michael Gilbert presents the last in his trilogy of talks about the history of London’s Crystal Palace, culminating in the disastrous fire of November 30 1936.

Stunning photographs of various events and exhibitions at London’s spectacular Crystal Palace were shown to the history society by Michael Gilbert, in the third part of his series of talks about the huge venue.

His presentation included details about the displays of fireworks held every Thursday night during the season. These were truly enormous affairs – one featured ships firing at each other in a mock naval battle.

Mr Gilbert gave a detailed account of the creation of a series of models of prehistoric monsters, as well as the numerous sporting events held at the venue – twenty FA Cup finals were played there, watched each time by over 100,000 spectators.

The Palace came to a disastrous end in November 1936, when a fire raged through the buildings despite the efforts of fire fighters manning no less than 300 fire engines.

Mr Gilbert played a short excerpt from a BBC radio broadcast made by commentators at the scene. A team, led by Richard Dimbleby, had rushed to the fire in a van loaded with equipment. They based themselves on the roof of a nearby building and one of the most extraordinary photographs shows the tiny figures of the broadcasters outlined in front of the vast blaze.

Oct 9

The Annals of Dunstable Priory

The first full translation of the Annals of Dunstable, a diary of local and national events written in Latin in medieval times at the Priory monastery, will be published later this month.

The diary is regarded as a priceless source of information about historic events, but producing an English version has always been regarded as a particularly challenging and complex task.

Stephen Williams, who first interested the Latin scholar David Preest in undertaking the work, told a packed meeting of Dunstable History Society how the Annals came to be written, and how its contents have survived over the years.

The prior and canons at the Priory kept updating the annals during a particularly turbulent period of England’s history, and their work shows how great events affected the town, as well as giving details about more-mundane matters of local life.

Nov 13

The Making of Bedfordshire’s Countryside

The ways in which the different soils in Bedfordshire, ranging from the chalk around Dunstable to the clay in the north of the county, have altered the lives of people here were described to the history society by Brian Kerr, who has written a book about the making of the local countryside.

Dynamic individuals have quarried the area, whether for sand, gravel, chalk, building-stone or brick-making clay, and farmers have had to specialise in growing certain crops. Wealthy landowners have created great parks on land which, perhaps, was not so suitable for agriculture, chalk pits have become nature reserves, forests have been planted and leisure areas preserved. All this human activity has changed the landscape.

Brian Kerr, a soil scientist who is a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University, answered a series of questions from history society members, ranging from peat cutting at Flitton Moor to the uses of Fuller’s Earth (it ranges from cleansing oil for sheeps’ wool to an ingredient of printing ink).

Dec 11

A Tudor Christmas

The history society’s December meeting had a seasonal flavour as Martin Sirot-Smith, resplendent in a Tudor costume, talked about Christmas festivities of the past, ranging from wassail bowls full of rich cider heated by red hot pokers, to shred pies full of minced meat.

Tudor festivities, in times when life was short, could often feature some crude and cruel practical jokes, and children would play a risky game called Snap-dragon, in which they would try to snatch raisins from a bowl of burning brandy.

Society members were relieved to learn that a missing box full of Tudor artefacts, intended to be used by Mr Sirot-Smith during his talk, had not been stolen by opportunist thieves. It had simply been delivered to the wrong meeting hall!

2017
Jan 10

History of the California

A talk by Penny Silford about Dunstable's California Ballroom attracted a capacity crowd to the history society's January meeting.

Penny displayed photos of the key people who ran the ballroom, including Edwin Green, his daughter Edwina, and grandson Mick Ilka. Famous djs like Louie Martin and Bruce Benson were mentioned, as well as the times when the huge ballroom was a popular venue for roller skating and professional wrestling.

But the audience was principally interested in hearing about the famous bands and singers who performed at the Cali. The Rolling Stones appeared four times, the Who were there twice, and other names mentioned included Pink Floyd, Slade, the Clash, P.J. Proby, Edwin Starr, Jimmy Ruffin, Hot Chocolate and the Commodores. Jimi Hendrix was the Cali's highest-paid act (£750 for one show), Bob Marley made an unadvertised guest appearance and James Brown gave one of his very few UK performances there although, because he arrived late, many people had already gone home before he went on stage.

The California legend lives on with the regular Cali R reunions organised by Sid Hudson, who was among the audience for Penny's talk.

Feb 14

Georgian Dunstable

A planned talk to the society on the fatal flights of film star Leslie Howard and pioneer pilot Amy Johnson had to be cancelled at short notice.

Society chairman John Buckledee stepped into the breach with stories of highwaymen, fist fighting and horse racing from Dunstable' s boisterous stagecoach times.

Mar 14

A Barron Knight's Tale

A packed audience at the history society's March meeting was kept thoroughly entertained by a series of anecdotes about local music legends the Barron Knights by the group's lead guitarist, Butch Baker.

Butch, who spent his early years at Pitstone, was taught to play the banjo by his father and then made himself a holder out of Meccano so he could play a harmonica at the same time. He won a scholarship to Cedars School in Leighton Buzzard and then got a job with the Leighton Buzzard Observer newspaper. But his dream career began when he joined the Barron Knights band.

They toured the country in a battered old Bedford coach, working seven days a week in dancehalls and coming back late at night to Dunstable to drop off lead singer Duke D'Mond (Richard Palmer) at his home in Bull Pond Lane.

Their big break came when they were booked for a nationwide concert tour on a bill which included the Beatles and Billy J. Kramer. As part of their act they included parodies of hit songs which led to the comedy record Call Up The Groups. BBC Television asked them to perform this on Top Of The Pops but there would have been problems about driving to the studio in time. The BBC solved this by arranging a private flight in a six-seater aircraft. It was then that the Barron Knights realised that they had arrived in a different league...

One of the early highlights was a long, record-breaking run at the London Palladium with Ken Dodd and then some tv comedy shows and seasons at Blackpool with Frank Ifield and Cannon and Ball. But Butch, for his Dunstable audience, concentrated on a series of yarns about local events, including numerous concerts at the California Ballroom and the purchase of his wedding suit at Buckle's outfitters in Middle Row.

He retired in 2007 after 46 years with the group, which is still going strong.

Apr 11

Women of the SOE's F Section

The Special Operations Executive, sending agents into German-held territories during the Second World War, used RAF Tempsford in Bedfordshire as one of its bases. Odette Hallowes and Violette Szabo are among the brave women who parachuted into France and whose stories are told by Bryony Norburn.

The brave women agents who were flown into German-held territory from RAF Tempsford during the Second World War were the subject of a talk by Bryony Norburn to the history society.

They assisted local resistance fighters in conditions of great danger, with the Germans being particularly skillful at tracking the source of their communications. The average time for a wireless operator to remain active before capture was just six weeks and many were subsequently tortured and executed.

Bryony showed photographs of the various buildings in this area where the girls were trained. This included instruction on weapon handling and parachute jumping, as well as the giveaway pitfalls in a foreign land of automatically looking the wrong way when crossing roads or reacting to a greeting shouted in English by a suspicious German.

Lysander aircraft were used for landings in France, with the resistance marking the landing spots with fires lit inside trenches which were visible from the air but less noticeable at ground level.

May 09

The Story of Blow's Downs

John Blow was the last member of his family to farm the land on top of the hills overlooking the east side of Dunstable. Locals had become so used to calling the area “Blow's Downs” that the name stuck for decades after John's death in September 1800. And that was the name set down, with its vital apostrophe (nothing to do with the breeze!), when the first official maps were produced.

David Turner told the story about the origin of the name in a detailed talk about the history of the downland, one of the world's very few examples of hills made of chalk...the compressed shells of millions of small sea-creatures from the cretaceous period.

He showed history society members examples of old maps of the area, recording the names of previous owners. The hills were once called Zouche's Downs, after the Norman family which was given large amounts of land after King William's invasion (Ashby de la Zouch being another). Another notable was Sir Reginald Bray, from whom Eaton Bray derives its name. He fought at the Battle of Bosworth Hill and supposedly retrieved Richard III's crown, knocked off the king's head during the fighting.

In later times, maps produced after the Enclosure Acts show the paths which locals were still allowed to use: one was recorded as “Thieves Way”.
Sept 12

London 1854 and the Crystal Palace

The second episode of Michael Gilbert's series of talks about Victorian London.

Photographs showing the construction of the gigantic Crystal Palace at Sydenham were displayed to members of the society at their September meeting.

Michael Gilbert, who had earlier spoken to the society about the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Hyde Park, returned to continue the story about the way the elaborate structure there was dismantled and re-erected on its new site and then filled with an astonishing range of exhibits.

Photographer Philip Henry Delamotte had been commissioned in 1852 to record the work as it progressed and his pictures, together with engravings published at the time in the Illustrated London News, demonstrated the enormous scale of the project.

Giant replicas of hundreds of historic statues were constructed, a copy of a house in Pompeii was built, an elaborate pumping system and an artesian well provided thousands of gallons of water for fountains in the palace gardens, and there were massive displays of rare plants – one giant palm tree was hauled to the site by a team of 32 horses.

The palace was burned down in a disastrous fire in 1936. That will be the subject of a future talk to the society.

Oct 10

Chiltern Radio – the Hot FM

The story of Chiltern Radio, the commercial broadcasting station once based in Dunstable, was told to members of the history society by Colin Mason, managing director of the company which founded the station.

Colonel Mason, who is Vice-Lord Lieutenant for Bedfordshire, favoured the name Chiltern because of its regional appeal. But the original plan was to establish its base in Luton, where a disused church and some abandoned hat factories were considered. But then the old Chiltern School, in Chiltern Road, Dunstable, came up for sale, and it seemed like a happy coincidence.

The Luton firm of T and E Neville undertook the conversion work required and the station began broadcasting on October 15 1981.

Chiltern's Programme Director, Phil Fothergill, had taken photographs and videos throughout much of the station's history, and he joined Col Mason to screen them at the society's meeting. They included shots of many personalities who worked at Chiltern including Slim Harris, Judith Dingley, Paul Holmes, Bill Young and Paul McKenna, and clips from the many local events visited by Chiltern's outside-broadcast unit. There were also videos of the station's later jingles being recorded at Dallas, Texas, where the singers, world-leaders in their sphere, produced tracks which mentioned virtually every town and village in the Chiltern region.

The radio station's story had not been given in this format before, and Col Mason had responded to the history society's invitation by unearthing much of the original documentation required by the broadcasting authority.

Chiltern provided a mixture of music and news plus many specialist local programmes which even included a regular quiz show involving pupils from the area's schools.

But it all came to an end very suddenly and unexpectedly in 1995 when Parliament changed the rules regarding ownership of commercial radio stations, which allowed Chiltern to fall prey to a hostile takeover. Most of the Chiltern Radio team was then disbanded. Mr Fothergill and Col Mason spent some time describing to history society members the battle in Westminster where Luton MP John Carlisle led an unsuccessful fight to halt the changes.

Nov 14

Roald Dahl's War

Before he became so well-known for his children's books, Roald Dahl wrote vivid stories based on his own war-time experiences. Graham Laurie described what happened.

Some of the lesser-known exploits of Roald Dahl, author of the hugely popular children's books and the “Tales of the Unexpected” short stories for adults, were described to the society by ex-RAF pilot Graham Laurie.

Graham concentrated on Dahl's time as a fighter pilot in North Africa in the Second World War, after his early career working for the Shell oil company in Tanganyika.

Dahl was badly injured when his aircraft crashed in no-man's-land between the Italian and British armies. He was lucky to be rescued and, even more remarkably, he was passed fit to fly again in April 1941 after a long period in hospital, and took part in the fierce air battles over Greece.

But the pain returned from his earlier head injuries and he was taken off flying duties, transferring to Washington as an air attache. He became involved in intelligence gathering with considerable successes, with influential contacts in the White House and the Washington social scene. And he began to develop a new career as a writer, after a meeting with the Hornblower novelist C.S. Forester led to one of his war-time stories being published and another tale was taken up by Walt Disney.

Dec 12

Underground history

Hannah Firth, the Planning Archaeologist with Central Beds Council, makes sure that historic sites are investigated before proposed redevelopment is allowed to take place. She and her team are working, for instance, on the Norman King land, the old Woolworth's site, the A5-M1 link road and the Dunstable Grammar School field and buildings. Hannah was also very much involved in the restoration of the old Priory gateway..

She described to Dunstable History Society some of the recent surveys carried out in Dunstable. Probably the most interesting work has been on the old Woolworth's site in High Street South, where there is evidence of a rich and complicated occupation dating back to the 12 th century, including no less than 28 wells.

Work has also been taking place around the Old Palace Lodge hotel, in the hope of finding physical evidence of King Henry I's palace which once stood somewhere in the area. Nothing relating to that was uncovered but, instead, the grave of a Roman woman was found, including a bowl which had been used for mixing cosmetics. The owner of the hotel has arranged for an image of the woman's appearance to be produced, and this was shown to history society members.

Surveys conducted during the construction of extensions to the college at Dunstable have revealed a Roman trackway, and Roman tracks were also found on the land where Dunstable cemetery is being extended. Medieval cellars have been traced on land at the rear of the Saracen's Head and evidence of industrial hat making was recorded at the rear of the Four Kings/Grey House building, which was once a hat factory,.

One the most unexpected discoveries has been on the Walnut Grove development near Great Northern Road, which is well away from the core of the Roman/medieval town. A large worked stone dating to the 12 th or 13 th century has been found there, which might have been part of a medieval building. A leper hospital once stood in the area and archaeologists are interested to see if evidence of this emerges as redevelopment continues.

2016
Jan 12

The Secrets of Q Central
The underground communications centre at RAF Stanbridge was a crucial factor in establishing the code-breaking station at Bletchley Park and the Met Office at Dunstable.
Paul Brown, of Leighton Buzzard History Society, tells the story.

More revelations about secret operations in this area during the Second World War were heard by Dunstable History Society at its latest meeting.

Paul Brown told a packed audience at Dunstable's Methodist Church Hall that documents about war-time activities in Leighton Buzzard had become available only recently. The secrets had been so well kept that local people were astonished to learn about the vital war-work carried out in the town.

Two years before the start of hostilities, as the Government realised that a conflict with Germany was becoming inevitable, a search was started for a quiet location reasonably close to London which could become the country's war-time communications centre.

Leighton Buzzard was chosen and initially hundreds of teleprinters were installed in the basement of the town's Corn Exchange, a vast structure in Lake Street now demolished. Bands continued to entertain in the hall above, with dancers unaware of what was happening in the rest of the building. Soon the largest telephone exchange in the world was in operation as the communications centre, code-named Q Central, expanded into what became known after the war as RAF Stanbridge.

RAF Signals Group 60, controlling the country's vast chain of radar stations, needed to be close to the communications hub so it established itself at Oxendon House, not too far away in Plantation Road. Its work enabled RAF fighter planes to intercept the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

Mr Brown described the extraordinary efforts made to conceal RAF Stanbridge from enemy spy planes. Its vast area of underground bunkers (over which a nature reserve is now being created) was covered by camouflage nets which were regularly repainted, as the seasons changed, to match the colour of the surrounding fields. A film company built a dummy airfield nearby, complete with parked cars and equipment, to distract enemy bombers away from the real target.

But, in fact, the area was never attacked. German aerial photographs captured after the war showed that the station's camouflage had been successful enough to disguise the importance of the site.

That was just as well because, at the start of the blitz, no less than 7,000 children were evacuated from London to what was thought to be the quiet country town of Leighton Buzzard. The secret about the town's importance, and of the large number of service personnel barracked there, was so well kept that the evacuation officers were unaware that they were taking the children into what was, potentially, a prime German target.

Another result of the creation of Q Central was the later decision to base the country's code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park, within easy distance of Leighton. And similar decisions about ease of access to Leighton led to the establishment of various clandestine and propaganda operations in this area and the move to Dunstable of the Meteorological Office, which provided such crucial weather information for the D-Day landings. The radio masts at RAF Edlesborough (then called RAF Dagnall) - a familiar sight on the road from Dunstable to Tring - were used to relay signals from Q Central, which remained operational throughout the Cold War.

Paul Brown is chairman of the Leighton Buzzard and District Archaeology and History Society. He is the joint editor (with Edwin Herbert) of a new book, The Secrets of Q Central, which is now on sale.

Feb 09

Songs of World War One
The songs sung by soldiers in the trenches poked fun at the generals or summoned up images of home.
Mike Ruff accompanies himself on an accordion in this evocative presentation.  

We don't want to lose you...but we think you ought to go...

That was one of the songs which persuaded young men to join the army in World War One – and it was sung again at a meeting of the Dunstable History Society last week. Members heard Mike Ruff describe the background to numerous war-time tunes, as well as providing an accompaniment on his piano-accordion to various singalong samples.

These included the familiar 1913 song “If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!” But soldiers in the trenches had their own version: “If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind!”

A songwriter named Jack Judge won a bet in 1912 by managing to write a song overnight ready for performance the next day. This was “It's a long way to Tipperary” and it became particularly famous when the Daily Mail reported that the troops were singing it as they marched towards the Front. But, like many songs of the time, the soldiers wrote their own, ruder, lyrics. Their version began: “That's the wrong way to tickle Mary...”

Mar 08

The History of Money
Guineas, groats, pounds, pence…these tokens have evolved to help people earn and pay for their goods.
Richard Selby tells the story.  

When King Charles II ordered the creation of a new coin in 1663, it was made from gold plundered from colonies in the Guinea region of West Africa. That provided the name which is still remembered today, although guineas are no longer common currency.

Former bank manager Richard Selby described the origin of many financial terms to members of the Dunstable History Society when he gave an entertaining talk about the history of money. A farthing's value was a quarter of a penny, or “fourthing”, and the Roman names for units of weight and coinage - librae, solidus and denarius - became the abbreviated £sd for pounds, shillings and pence.

Translations of the words around the edge of the current pound coins proved fascinating. England's coin says “Decus et Tutaman” – an ornament and a safeguard. The Scottish version is “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit” – no-one provokes me with impunity.

Mr Selby's talk followed the society's annual meeting when the following officers were elected: chairman John Buckledee, vice-chairman David Turner, secretary Joan Curran, treasurer Gordon Ivinson, hon auditor David Fookes, committee Ron Frith, Hugh Garrod, Rita Swift, Sue Turner, Cynthia Turvey and David Underwood.

During the meeting a presentation was made to retired schoolmaster Omer Roucoux, a founder member of the society, who had decided not to seek re-election to its committee. Mr Roucoux, the original editor of the society's newsletter, has been at the forefront of much research into the town's history. One of his notable publications was the result of detailed investigation into the history and route of the Roman Watling Street and he used scaffolding to take photographs of the unusual wooden statues in the roof of the Priory Church, which are not easily visible from the ground

A gift was also given to Cynthia Turvey, who had been the society's treasurer for the past 16 years. Mrs Turvey will continue to serve on the committee.


Apr 12

More Poems With A Local Twist
By popular request, a welcome return by local author Frank Batt with more skilful and amusing rhymes based on local characters and places.  

Members of the history society queued to buy books by local poet Frank Batt after, by popular demand, he paid a return visit to their monthly meeting.

Frank's poems usually have a local twist, combining references to Bedfordshire's place names, history and personalities, and adding a touch of humour.

His selection at the society's April meeting including jokes about the Bunyan statue at Bedford, the fungus-hunting of Dunstable's Worthington Smith, and the connections of Captain Flint and Peter Pan's Wendy with the village of Cockayne Hatley.

May 10

Why Poisonous Plants make good Medicine
Many familiar fruits and flowers have medicinal properties – in correct dosages. Dr Henry Oakeley, Garden Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, gives an illustrated talk.  

An outline of the way in which vaccines to fight the ebola virus are being produced was described to members of the history society by Dr Henry Oakeley, Garden Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, who gave a talk about the way poisonous plants can make good medicine.

Many familiar fruits and flowers have healing properties – in correct dosages. The leaf which causes the most deaths every year is the nicotine plant, used as tobacco, and yet this had been found to be particular suitable as a host for the antibodies which can treat ebola.

Numerous garden plants can be harmful – tomato and potato leaves are two familiar examples – and a rule to follow is to be wary of a plant which tastes bitter.

Sept 13

Sam Kydd, Film and TV star
Ann Ledger talks about the Dunstable Grammar School boy who became a well-known actor in scores of movies (Dunkirk, I'm Alright Jack) and television dramas (Pickwick Papers, Crane)

The text of a letter from future film actor Sam Kydd while he was a prisoner-of-war in Poland was shown to the history society at its September meeting.

Sam, who was a boarder at Dunstable Grammar School from 1928 to 1933, was captured at the siege of Calais early in the Second World War. His military experience was later put to good use when he appeared in numerous war films, ranging from Dunkirk to Reach For The Sky.

Dunstable Town Guide Ann Ledger described his career, ranging from promising performances in Grammar School plays (he was Maria in a production of Twelfth Night) to compering shows by the Oscar Rabin Band (he provided impersonations of Vic Oliver and Charles Laughton).

While a prisoner in a German Stalag, he organised shows of silent movies using a projector sent to the camp by the Red Cross – the subject of his letter traced by Ann Ledger. He also directed and performed in a number of camp concerts – experiences which led him to take up an acting career after the war ended

This was phenomenally successful, with parts in around 200 movies and roles in a host of television dramas and comedies: he was Sam Weller in the Pickwick Papers, a bar-tender in the adventure series Crane, and a character in Hancock's Half-Hour.

Sam was the son of a soldier, and Ann Ledger guessed that he was sent to Dunstable as a boarder because the grammar school at that time provided a degree of military training and it was hoped he would follow in his father's footsteps. He actually reached the rank of lance-corporal in the school cadet corps.

Nov 8

London 1851 and the Great Exhibition
Michael Gilbert talks about Victorian London and the amazing celebration of inventiveness and endeavour on display in the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park.

The recent TV series about Queen Victoria stopped short at the Prince Albert's involvement in the creation of a Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, where amazing displays of Victorian inventiveness and endeavour were housed in a gigantic glass edifice which became known as the Crystal Palace.

Details about its construction, involving (for instance) the manufacture of 900,000 panes of glass, will surely feature in a future tv series, already being scripted. Meanwhile, historian Michael Gilbert told a Dunstable history society audience about the 1851 event, which contained around 100,000 exhibits and was visited by six million people within a six-month period.

There was a particular local fascination about the enormous palace, because it was designed by Joseph Paxton, whose early career included a spell as a gardener at Battlesden House, near Dunstable. The history society's vice-chairman, David Turner, has traced a painting of the gardens there which most likely shows Paxton hard at work, and which will be a feature of a future talk.

Michael Gilbert's visit to Dunstable had its own drama, because he was delayed by the railway failures between London and Luton, and then became tangled in the subsequent traffic chaos at St Albans. While the 120-strong audience at Dunstable awaited his arrival, a series of old photographs from the Dunstable Gazette were screened instead.

The society meets on the second Tuesday of each month at the Methodist Church Hall in Dunstable. The December meeting, where there will be festive food and drink, is for members only, but all are welcome to the society's event on January 10 when Penny Silford will talk about the California Ballroom.

Dec 13

The Origins of Christmas

A host of anecdotes about the traditions of Christmas were recounted by Tony Woodhouse to members of the history society at their December meeting.

The influence of Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Clement Moore (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas) and Prince Albert (Christmas trees) were discussed, as well as the choice of December 25 as the date for celebrating Christ's birth (if shepherds in the region were watching their flocks in the fields at the time, then the date would more likely be nearer April).

Various scientific explanations were considered for the Star of Bethlehem which, if not a miraculous sign from God, could have been a comet, a nova or a conjunction of planets. The bible says the star led a group of wise men to Jesus's birthplace but, as Tony reminded his audience, it does not claim that they were kings or that there were three of them.

   
2015  
Jan 13

The Great Train Robbery
A television documentary featured Andrew Cook talking about his new discoveries about the famous robbery near Cheddington. No-one has ever been charged with providing the gang with vital information about where to strike. Dr Cook has had access to investigation files. Now the society will hear more.

New facts about the Great Train Robbery at Cheddington in 1963 were revealed at the society's January meeting.

Andrew Cook, principal of the Kings House preparatory school at Luton, is famous for his series of books uncovering some of the greatest mysteries of our time. His biggest exclusive was tracing files which revealed the fate of the notorious spy Sidney Reilly: he had been captured and executed by Russian secret police.

Now Dr Cook has gained access to some of the documentation, previously kept confidential, about official investigations into the train robbery, in which over £45 million (measured by today's values) was stolen.

His talk to the history society included names and pictures of various robbers, some still alive, who have never been charged. Some of them subsequently founded substantial businesses.

The gang assembled at Leatherslade Farm, near Thame in Oxfordshire, in the days before the robbery and awaited crucial inside information about which Royal Mail train would be carrying a huge load of used banknotes. The informant has never been publicly identified, but the list of suspects was narrowed down by extensive examination of the records of phone calls to the Leatherslade Farm area. One man on the list, kept under surveillance for years, is still alive.

The robbers had a second hideout, at Beaford, Devon. They spent a lot of time at the local pub, and on one memorable occasion they were very generous bidders at a charity auction there when vegetables from the church harvest festival were sold.   Later, the police gently asked the vicar if he would return the money. He, gently, declined, saying that God Moves In Mysterious Ways!

One robber was let off at the trial thanks to the brilliance of his lawyers. Jubilant, he drove to his home in Boscastle, Cornwall, where he had buried his share of the money. He found that other criminals had dug up his garden while he was on remand and stolen the lot.

A solicitors' clerk who, it was discovered later, had used his vast knowledge of the London underworld to introduce various criminal experts to the robbery plan, disappeared after being released from jail following a successful appeal. Police believe he was murdered.

Feb 10

Tring Reservoirs
Richard Pilkington is bailiff of the lakes at Marsworth which provide water to feed the canals. His talk will feature their history, engineering and wildlife.

The reservoirs near Tring are not, as some people think, to supply drinking water. They provide the method by which the canals are refilled, pumping as much as 15 million gallons a day into the system. As a series of lock gates are opened, the influx enables hundreds of narrow boats to navigate the waterway.

The story of the reservoirs was told by their head bailiff, Richard Pilkington, to members of the history society, who heard that the canal operation is a mixture of new and old technology. Computers keep track of the rise and fall of water levels, but the original mechanical system is still used to operate the lock gates.

The water in the reservoirs is the equivalent in quality to that of a chalk stream and is so full of natural food that it sustains some record-sized perch, tench and pike. But the fish are subsequently less likely to be tempted by artificial bait, so the waters are a particular challenge for anglers.

Mr Pilkington described the reservoirs' rich variety of wildlife. These include the rare bird, the bittern, which hides in the reed beds. Best time to spot them is during winter, when the reeds are white with frost and a bittern's brown plumage is more distinctive.

Mar 10

Poems With A Local Twist
Local author Frank Batt will present a selection of his entertaining poems, including verses about Worthington Smith's problems with an ancient skeleton excavated at Caddington.

Local poet Frank Batt entertained the society with selections from his books, which include verses combining references to Bedfordshire's history, place names and personalities.

There were often amusing punch lines worthy of the very best stand-up comedians, as well as skilful rhymes: his poem about the Dunstable archaeologist and naturalist Worthington Smith described him as a fun guy who studied fungi, with a terrific interest in the Palaeolithic!

Mr Batt, who is now working on a book about Luton Town Football Club, has already been invited back to speak to a future meeting of the society.

Apr 14

The Battle of Waterloo
Almost exactly 200 years ago, the Duke of Wellington galloped from a ball in Brussels to lead his troops against an invading army led by Napoleon. The fierce battle near the village of Waterloo raged all day. Paul Chamberlain describes the brutal clash.

With the 200 th  anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo fast approaching, it was an appropriate time for the society to hear a talk by Napoleonic Wars expert Paul Chamberlain, of Stopsley.

He gave an hour-by-hour description of the confrontation on June 18 1815 between Allied forces led by the Duke of Wellington and Marshal Blucher, and the French forces led by Napoleon.

The attack by the French devolved into a series of separate battles, each huge in scale, beginning with fighting at Quatre Bras and Ligny before developing into the conflict near the village of Waterloo, where there were thousands of casualties over a 3x2 mile killing field.

Paul described the personalities of the key officers on both sides and explained their fateful tactics, manoeuvres and mistakes. He was at pains to emphasise the valour of so many of the soldiers of all nationalities – jingoistic reports written for British readers have tended to underplay the roles of the Prussian, Dutch and Belgian soldiers in the Allied army.

May 12

The Home of James Bond
Iconic movies, ranging from Reach For The Sky to the James Bond series, have been produced at Pinewood Studios. Dirk Bogarde made Doctor In The House, Sid James was in a host of Carry On films and some favourite tv shows are recorded there. Mike Payne provides a star-studded talk.

Film fan Mike Payne kept a capacity audience thoroughly entertained with the roller-coaster story of Pinewood Studios, the production centre at Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire responsible for numerous blockbusters including the James Bond movies.

Multi-millionaire Charles Boot realised his dream of creating a film studio by converting Heatherden Hall into the setting for a host of popular productions, beginning in 1936 with London Melody starring  Anna Neagle and then some successful musicals featuring Jessie Matthews.

J. Arthur Rank later became involved and his trademark logo, the man with the gong, became a familiar opening to scores of successful movies such as Genevieve and Doctor In the House.

Pinewood now rivals Hollywood with the quality of its films, being responsible for such money-spinners as the Superman and Batman series, not to mention the Carry On comedies.

The biggest star ever produced by Pinewood was Norman Wisdom whose films were enormously popular in their time. Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More, Alastair Sim and Alec Guiness were among the numerous British actors who regularly worked on the Buckinghamshire sound stages, but the first major international star to arrive there was Gregory Peck. His film The Million Pound Note started a trend and it is now commonplace for A-list actors to work in Pinewood rather than Hollywood.

Movie-making can result in huge losses as well as colossal profits, and Pinewood has had its fair share of crises. It is now receiving what is hopefully a steadier income by including a host of television shows in its output.

Sep 08

Hats – their history and their theatre
You may be called upon by well-known local hat manufacturer Philip Wright to model
some creations from his firm.

Hat designer Philip Wright, who was featured on television recently when railway-traveller Michael Portillo visited Luton, was guest speaker at Dunstable History Society's September meeting.

Philip, of the family-owned Walter Wright hat firm, described the early days of hat manufacture in Dunstable and how much of the work shifted to Luton when the railway station opened there.

Summer bonnets and boaters were assembled from plaited straw, and felt hats were created by being moulded into shape on wooden blocks. The invention of sewing machines revolutionised the industry, with hats being quickly assembled in numerous tiny workshops.

Philip brought various types of hats to the meeting, and modelled them himself to demonstrate how they could transform a wearer's appearance.

Oct 13

The mysterious disappearance of Glenn Miller  
An aircraft carrying the famous American band leader vanished during the war after taking off from a base near Bedford. But is this the true story? Tony Eaton reveals some surprising evidence.  

Did American band leader Glenn Miller really die in a war-time plane crash over the English Channel? Tony Eaton, who has been researching the mystery for many years, is convinced that the true facts have been covered up, and he produced evidence to support his theories at the history society's October meeting.

Miller, serving as a major in the US air force, was supposedly on a plane which took off in thick fog from an airfield near Bedford on a flight to France. It disappeared and its whereabouts have never been traced.

Strangely, military files about the incident are still being kept secret despite intense pressure (Miller's widow bombarded the authorities with letters) and the few documents which have been made available have merely added to the puzzle.

Tony Eaton screened the passenger list from the missing plane, showing that three people were aboard. But the crucial name – Alton G. Miller – appears to have been typed in later.

Mr Eaton is convinced that Glenn Miller, who had been working for the war-time equivalent of the CIA on propaganda broadcasts to Germany, had flown to France some days previously. He had been ordered to go to SHAEF headquarters in Paris to meet General Eisenhower, head of the allied forces. While in Paris it seems he suffered a serious head injury and was flown to a specialist hospital in Ohio. There is documentation showing that Alton G. Miller died there in December 1944.

So why is there a mystery about this? Mr Eaton believes that whatever happened in Paris needed to be kept secret, so a story was invented to explain his disappearance. Then one lie led to another.

Miller's war-time commander, the actor David Niven, avoided the subject in his best-selling books about his life. And Miller's band manager, who had joined the US air force at the same time as his boss, remained tight-lipped too. Herb Miller, Glenn's brother, was thwarted in his attempts to have an examination made of the Miller family's grave in California.

German secret service documents, captured by the Russians during the war, are now becoming available. These are revealing much about clandestine operations around Eisenhower which add even more mystery to the tale.

Nov 10

Family history and transportation  
Documents about prisoners transported to British colonies are providing some unexpected revelations
about our ancestors. Andy Amos gives the details.

Family history details are often only interesting to the family concerned. But sometimes researchers discover an ancestor whose life is very much out of the ordinary.

That happened to Andy Amos, whose great great great grandfather John Russ, born in 1799, was sentenced to transportation after being convicted of stealing.

Mr Amos showed history society members how he had been able to trace the documents recording what happened at John's trial, his time in fetters aboard a prison hulk moored at Devonport, and his voyage to Australia.

The authorities kept detailed records, including John's treatment for illness during the journey and a very candid description of his appearance. But this particular voyage has gone down in history because some members of the crew refused to obey orders and “piratically did make a revolt on the high seas”.

With insufficient people available to man the ship, some of the prisoners were unchained and brought up on deck to help. It appears that John was one of these.

In Australia he worked as a hairdresser and a groom, and was eventually granted his freedom. But he never returned to England, where he had left a wife and family.

Dec 08

Wrens to Retirement  
Zena Skinner, who lives locally, was one of the first cooks to have her own TV show.

Zena Skinner, famous as a TV cook in the days long before celebrity chefs became a staple broadcasting diet, spoke about her career to members of the history society.

She told a series of amusing anecdotes about her days in service as a Wren, before she was demobbed and took a job as a demonstrator in electricity showrooms, showing how to prepare meals on the latest cookers.

This led her to similar positions in the West Indies and Africa, before she was “spotted” by the BBC and asked to present an early-evening cookery programme. Its success led to a 30-year television career and a host of best-selling cookery books.

Zena, who lives locally, now spends much of her time raising money for charity, in particular the Keech hospice at Luton.


   
2014  
Jan 14 Oranges and Lemons
Colin Oakes tells of the London churches made famous by the familiar nursery rhyme.

Origins of the nursery rhyme Oranges And Lemons, which contains numerous allusions to London churches, were described to the society by Colin Oakes, who laid to rest numerous misconceptions.

The bells of St Clement's, for instance, refers not to St Clement Danes but to a church in Eastcheap where there was once a warehouse for citrus fruit. The five farthings mentioned by the bells of St Martin's gives the amount once charged by the monks for seeking sanctuary there.

The familiar versesof the rhyme was printed in children's books in Victorian times, but much longer versions were being recited in earlier centuries, with bull's eyes and targets referring to archery practice at the church of St Margaret's, and maids in white aprons referring to brothels around St Catherine's.

Mr Field mentioned the fascinating history of a number of other rhymes, which unfortunately are not so familiar to some of today's children as in previous generations. The pieman's apparently straightforward demand of a penny from Simple Simon refers, in fact, to gambling habits of its period.

The history society's meeting in December featured a seasonal magic lantern display by Tony Brown and Gordon Casbeard, which probably enthralled its 2013 audience even more that its original viewers of Victorian times.

Feb 11

History of the Priory Church
Dunstable's parish church survived the destruction of the monastery of which it was once a part. Hugh Garrod's talk ranges from Edward VI to the present day.

The rarest artefacts in Dunstable's Priory Church are the wooden carvings known as the Marian Pillars.

These are full of Roman Catholic symbolism and were erected in the church by order of Queen Mary, who was reintroducing the Roman religion into England after the death of her father, King Henry VIII.

Henry had instigated a court hearing in the Priory which had declared his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be invalid, thus allowing him to marry Anne Boleyn.

Mary never forgot the insult and indignity which she and her mother had suffered. Priory historian Hugh Garrod, in a talk to the local history society, said that the pillars were undoubtedly a statement of Royal anger at what had happened in Dunstable.

Mr Garrod's talk covered the more-recent events in the church's 800-year history, and included the tale of the Dunstable rector Zachary Symmes, who became one of the pioneer settlers in America, and helped to found the town of Charleston. He was a firebrand preacher who converted to become a Baptist. His sermons were in complete contrast to those of his predecessor at Dunstable, Edward Alport, who was so unpopular that his parishioners carried out an (unsuccessful) campaign to have him removed. This included a demonstration in which a sheep was brought into the pulpit. Its bleatings, said the congregation, made more sense than the words of the priest!

Mr Garrod's investigations into the fabric of the church have included the origins of the large nails still to be seen in the walls around the windows. These are remnants of the bombing in World War Two, when blackout curtains were hung up to enable evensong to be continued.

Mar 11

Hornblower's Navy
Paul Chamberlain, of Luton, gives the facts about naval life during the Napoleonic Wars. His talk follows the society's annual meeting

Paul Bowes, owner of the former Book Castle shop in Dunstable, has been appointed President of the Dunstable and District Local History Society.

He was nominated for the honorary position in recognition of his outstanding work in promoting knowledge of the history of the Dunstable area. His bookshop in Church Street was the base for the publication of numerous local history books, which Paul took a very active part in encouraging and editing.

He travelled from his retirement home in Yorkshire to attend the society's annual meeting, where he gave a short speech recalling how his interest in Dunstable and its rich history had been kindled.

The meeting heard a talk by Paul Chamberlain, of Luton, about the Royal Navy in Napoleonic times, with descriptions of the various ships which took part in the war against the French and the ways in which the crews were organised.

The British navy was ahead of its enemies in the way it tried to look after the health of its men. A vaccination against smallpox was extensively used, and the decks were regularly fumigated with vinegar or tobacco. Scurvy had virtually been eliminated by introducing citrus fruit into the sailors' diet. Lime juice, for instance, was mixed into the men's daily ration of grog which was one reason why Americans of the time began calling them Limejuicers, or Limeys.

The comparitative fitness of the British was one reason for the navy's success in the Battle of Trafalgar, where many of the French sailors were unable to fight effectively because they were ill.

Apr 08

The History of Harrods
The story of London's great department store was told by Richard Furnival Jones

Harrods, the famous Knightsbridge store, once proudly advertised that it could sell anything “from a pin to an elephant”.

A wealthy customer decided to call the store's bluff by telephoning with an order for one elephant. The Harrods' switchboard operator was not overawed. “African or Indian?” she asked.

The customer did, in fact, go on to buy an elephant and also a jewel-encrusted hat pin.

The story was told by Richard Furnival Jones, who was the store's licensee and shop floor manager of its food hall. Resplendent in an £750 Edwardian-style market coat bearing the Harrods' crest, he told numerous anecdotes to history society members about the store and its famous customers. Oscar Wilde was an account holder, John Wayne ordered whisky there when in town and that famous photo of the Tsar's children on the Isle of Wight shows them wearing sailor suits – all bought at Harrods.

May 13

Bedfordshire Through Time
Author Stephen Jeffery-Poulter screens a wide-ranging selection of historic postcard views of the county's towns and villages.

A vast collection of local postcards assembled by the late Sandy Chrystal and donated to the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has formed the basis for a new book, Bedfordshire Through Time.

It has been compiled by author Stephen Jeffery-Poulter who screened a display of pictures from the book to members of the Dunstable history society.

Towns and villages throughout the county were featured in alphabetical order, with the audience challenged to identify each location. Members recognised a wide variety of scenes ranging from Arlesey to Woburn and Aspley Guise to Whipsnade.

Sep 09

The Mystery of Hitler's Deputy
Why did Rudolph Hess fly into captivity in England at the height of the war? Tony Eaton tells the story.

Rudolph Hess, Hitler's deputy, parachuted into Britain in 1941 with the aim of seeking out the Duke of Hamilton and arranging an end to the war.

He was promptly arrested and denounced by Hitler as a madman. He was kept in prison for the rest of his life, with no outsiders allowed to interview him.

But has there been a massive cover-up by the British establishment about what really happened? Tony Eaton thinks so, and gave members of the history society details of his theories. Probably his most convincing argument is the fact that diaries kept by Hess have been destroyed, and British government dossiers about Hess have still not been made public.

Mr Eaton believes that Hess came to Britain with Hitler's fullest blessing with the aim of completing a peace treaty which had already been negotiated. It inevitably involved replacing Churchill as Britain's leader and Hess had a list of names of prominent people who supported such an action, the well-connected duke being the first point of contact. Hess had expected to be able to report back to Hitler within 48 hours, with news that would have left Germany able to concentrate all its forces on the projected invasion of Russia.

Despite the blackout, landing lights were switched on at an air strip near the duke's home where Hess was supposed to land, and RAF fighters made no effort to intercept. But Hess's plane lost its way in the Scottish mist and he parachuted down instead. He was captured by the Home Guard and the news went directly to Churchill, who acted immediately to stop the intended coup. So many prominent people were involved that details were censored to avoid splitting the country and years of skulduggery followed as Britain endeavoured to keep the secret.

Mr Eaton's talk fascinated members, especially as the government paperwork on the case has to be revealed (or again officially suppressed) within the next few years.

Oct 14

Dunstable Through Time
John Buckledee displays photos from a new book featuring pictures from the Gazette's Yesteryear series, plus new colour views of the scenes today.

Photos from this newspaper's long-running Yesteryear series were screened to members of the history society by former editor John Buckledee.

Historian Ken Cooper was responsible for the original Yesteryear articles, then titled Scene Again, which featured postcards chosen from his huge collection. When this ended, veteran photographer George Gurney supplied iconic local photos taken by himself, together with anecdotes about the events they illustrated.

Today, Yesteryear is a mixture of snaps sent in by readers and examples from the paper's vast archives. And a selection of Dunstable Yesteryear photos has just been published in book form, titled Dunstable Through Time.

Nov 11

Milk Bars and Music
Colin Oakes returns to the society to talk about London in the 50s and 60s. Tommy Steele is bound to feature

A mixture of coal fires and fog produced an unpleasant, lung-choking atmosphere in London during wintry days in the 50s and 60s. Adventures in the smog were graphically described by Colin Oakes to members of the history society in a talk about the capital's more-recent history, which ranged from the introduction of exotic foods such as hamburgers to the activities of spivs selling black-market food.

This was a golden age for music, with coffee bars introducing skiffle groups and early rock n rollers such as Tommy Steele, and with restaurants providing live jazz as well as food. The seeds for London's emergence as a cosmopolitan style centre were sown as the country emerged from the privations of war. Many a history society member sighed with nostalgia at descriptions of the most popular menus of the day, notably prawn cocktail and steak and chips, with Black Forest gateau and (perhaps) a glass of Blue Nun !

   
2013  
Jan 08 On And Off The Footplate
An amusing talk by Bill Davies telling of his adventures as an engine driver in a career covering Charing Cross, King's Cross and all points north.

Retired engine driver Bill Davies gave a joke-filled account of his 42 years on the railways to an appreciative history society audience.

He clearly had been unimpressed by the efforts of an endless stream of managers to revitalise the rail network, usually beginning with a new corporate image involving new uniforms for all the staff. He had accumulated an immense collection of railway ties as souvenirs of numerous changes.

But his love of trains shone through and he showed society members a beautiful series of photos of railway engines, together with examples of some unfortunately phrased railway notices – “Extra ladies are available around the corner” or “This sign is not in use”. There was even a sign saying “Café – closed for lunch”.

Anecdotes included tales of an accident-prone train driver named Ricochet Reg who eventually found his niche working in a shunting yard, and of an engine breakdown on the line alongside next to the M1, where the crew used a motorway phone box to report the problem. The AA turned up to help!

Feb 12 Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of Cardington airships
David Fowler tells the story of the flights from those massive hangars
which dominate the skyline south of Bedford.

A spectacular series of photographs of early airships was screened by David Fowler at the society's February meeting.

Mr Fowler was talking about the great hangars at Cardington, near Bedford, where luxurious airships, such as the ill-fated R101, were built.

One of the hangars is currently being used by the film company Warner Brothers as a studio for such blockbusters as the Batman movies. The roof of the other is being replaced to ensure its future.

Mr Fowler outlined the possible reasons for the R101's crash in October 1930 on its trial flight to Karachi. There were 54 people on board and only six survived. The disaster shocked the world and huge crowds watched the funeral procession. The victims were buried in a mass grave at Cardington.

Photos of earlier, ill-fated, balloon flights were also shown by Mr Fowler. Particularly poignant was a scene from an attempt by Andree, Fraenkel and Strindberg to fly across the North Pole in 1897. The explorers disappeared but many years later the balloon's basket was found. It contained photographic plates taken during their expedition.

Another Arctic disaster was in May 1926 when the Nobile expedition crashed on the ice. The famous explorer Amundsen set out on a rescue attempt, but never returned.

The talk created a great deal of interest. One member produced a snapshot taken in Regent Street, Luton, showing the R101 flying over the town and another mentioned that his great-uncle, C.E. Taylor, was among those killed when the airship crashed.

Apr 09 Social History of the English Civil War Soldier
Military historian Alan Turton talks about the day-to-day life of soldiers of both sides and displays examples of their kit, clothing, armour and weapons.

Military historian Alan Turton displayed a collection of English Civil War uniforms and weapons at the April meeting of the society.

He demonstrated how to load and fire a matchlock musket, and modelled a series of woollen hats as worn by the soldiers – the caps were warm and, in time, the grease from the men's unwashed hair made them waterproof.

Shoes had neither a right nor a left-foot fitting – the universal shape meant they could be swopped over to even out the wear. The soldiers were each given a single shirt made of linen, which was something of a luxury for countryfolk who were used to making their own shirts from fibres drawn from stinging-nettle stalks. But trousers were in short supply – there exists a complaint from the governor at Newport Pagnell that soldiers in the garrison there were having to share their breeches, with off-duty men going without!

One of the soldiers involved in the war was the French swordsman D'Artagnan, who fought for the Royalists at the Battle of Newbury. His name became famous as the hero of the Dumas novel The Three Musketeers.

May 14 The Annals of Dunstable
A new translation of the yearly record kept in medieval times by the canons of Dunstable Priory will be published soon. Stephen Williams speaks about the background to this significant event.

The Annals of Dunstable, the yearly record of events written at the former Augustinian Priory in Dunstable, are to be published as part of the town's medieval project.

The Rev Stephen Williams, Vicar of Harlington, has been fascinated by the Annals for many years and found, by chance, that he had studied under the same Latin teacher as Richard Preest, who has worked on the publication of many medieval documents.

Mr Williams introduced Mr Preest to the Dunstable project and he agreed to undertake the massive task of translating the Annals from the medieval Latin.

The many problems which this involved were outlined to a packed audience at the history society's May meeting.

Mr Williams described how the Annals were begun by Richard de Morins, who had attended the prestigious Bologna University where scientific judicial procedures were studied. Surprisingly, this eminent scholar chose to become Prior of Dunstable rather than pursue a European career. Among the projects which he then initiated was a diary of events as seen by the canons or heard by them from travellers who stopped at Dunstable Priory during their journeys along the Watling Street or the Icknield Way.

The entries cover a huge variety of local, national and international subjects, including an eyewitness account of an “awesome” eclipse of the sun which was also recorded by ancient civilisations in other parts of the world.

Sep 10 Dunstable's Tudor Wall Paintings
Sue Turner, of the Friends of Priory House, tells the fascinating story of the murals uncovered in the old Charlie Cole cycle shop.

The ancient murals once hidden behind panelling in the old Charlie Cole's cycle shop in High Street North, Dunstable, were the subject of a talk last week by Sue Turner.

Huge efforts were made to preserve the wall paintings when the shop was converted into a branch of the Nationwide Building Society in 1985.

They are now on display in Priory House where they have been the subject of a major preservation effort (just completed) made possible by a Lottery Grant to the Friends of Priory House.

Sue, secretary of the Friends, described the care lavished on the murals, which are of national importance. They include a hunting scene featuring a Talbot dog, a woodland glade in which 24 different plant species have been identified, and what is probably the earliest depiction of a man smoking a pipe. Tobacco was introduced in Tudor times, but the Victoria and Albert Museum is now suggesting that the fashion of the man's costume dates it between 1610 and 1630, which is the Jacobean period.

It had always been thought that the murals were typical of decorations in a pub, and historian Joan Curran has had remarkable success in confirming this. She has traced documents showing that the building, which now has a more-modern façade, was almost certainly the old White Hart, dating back to at least 1606.

It ceased to be a pub in around 1776 and the name transferred to a new, larger White Hart coaching inn built almost next door. The story of the pub is told in detail in the society's newsletter.

Oct 08
History of the Augustinian Priory
Built by Henry I, demolished by Henry VIII, the story of Dunstable's historic building is told by Priory historian Hugh Garrod

The rise and fall of the Augustinian Priory in Dunstable was described by Priory historian Hugh Garrod to the history society.

The present parish church (all that remains of the original monastery) shows many traces of changes made during the building's 800-year history, as architectural styles altered and natural disasters took place (the tower collapsed during a great storm in 1222).

Hugh screened many drawings by Tony Woodhouse which showed how the monastery must have looked. A geophysical survey of its foundations, preserved under the turf of Priory gardens, has enabled an accurate depiction to be made. And illustrations of how the building was erected are as authentic as possible. Wheelbarrows are shown because Hugh found a reference to them in the writings of a 12 th century scholar, Alexander Nequam, who spent some time as a schoolmaster in Dunstable.

Dunstable became notorious during the reign of Henry V111 when Archbishop Cranmer held a court in the Priory's Lady Chapel which declared the marriage of Henry to Catherine of Aragon to be invalid. This began a chain of events that radically altered religious worship throughout the country, and Hugh pointed out that the present Church of England was truly started in Dunstable.

King Henry went on to order the demolition of monasteries throughout the country, but he allowed a small part of the building in Dunstable to be spared, to provide a parish church for the townspeople.

Nov 12

Signs of the Festival of Britain
Attractive name signs were erected in every village in Bedfordshire to commemorate the great festival of 1951. Barry and Pauline Wolsey tell the story.

One of the results of the Festival of Britain in 1951 was a decision to provide special name signs for every village in Bedfordshire.

The signs incorporated the festival's distinctive logo and the coat of arms of the county council. It all helped to add to the air of optimism in the country, which the festival generated after years of rationing and hardship.

Pauline and Barry Wolsey entertained the Dunstable History Society with a brief account of the festival and the story of their somewhat-obsessive quest to track down and photograph all the remaining village signs. It has not proved easy, with many of the signs having been removed to other sites, demolished, or simply covered by undergrowth. It provided society members with a whistle-stop tour of some of the county's more-unfamiliar villages.

   
2012  
Jan 10

Chasing Steeples
An exploration into the origins of English steeplechasing by the Rev Stephen Williams, Vicar of Harlington parish where cross-country horse racing all began

The first cross-country horse race in England was held in this area, between Harlington and Silsoe, on March 8, 1830. It was called a steeplechase because the route had to be between two easily visible landmarks – and church steeples were obviously recognisable.

The Vicar of Harlington, the Rev Stephen Williams, has been investigating the reasons why this great sporting event was held in his parish, and he described his researches to members of the Dunstable history society.

The race had been prompted by young cavalry officers from the Lifeguards who used to assemble at the Turf Hotel in Chequers Street, St Albans. They were all superb horsemen and the attraction at the hotel was the landlord, Tommy Coleman, who had been a famous flat-race jockey, riding at Newmarket for the King.

They asked Tommy to arrange a race for the officers over a secret route in good hunting country. The horses were required to jump all the hedges and streams on the way – no-one was allowed to slip through a farm gate!

Each entrant put up 25 sovereigns into a sweepstake, with the total to go to the winner. The prize-money amounted to 300 guineas – a considerable fortune in 1830.

The event was to have started at Streatley but news of the route leaked out and several of the riders had unfairly made themselves familiar with that stretch of countryside. So on the very morning of the race the route was changed, running from Bury Orchard near Harlington Church to the tall obelisk which once stood in the grounds of Wrest Park, Silsoe, near what is now the village bypass. The obelisk stands today in Trent Park.

The occasion was a huge success, attracting massive interest, and was copied subsequently in many other parts of the country. It was won by a grey horse named The Wonder, owned by Lord Ranelagh and ridden by Capt McDowell. Among the 16 other riders at Harlington was Capt Martin Becher. When a similar event was held near Liverpool, at Aintree, in later years, Capt Becher's horse refused to jump a hedge-lined stream and he was catapulted into the water. He took cover under the bushes while the rest of the field thundered over him and his exploit became so famous that the jump became called Becher's Brook, now a well-known obstacle in the Grand National.

Feb 14

Aattack on the stronghold at Bedford of Falkes de Breaute
The dramatic months in 1224 when the men of Dunstable were given the dubious honour of leading an attack on the stronghold at Bedford of Falkes de Breaute were described by Tony Woodhouse to Dunstable and District Local History Society.

Falkes was a warrior knight who had been terrorising the area to such an extent that he had kidnapped one of the king's justices at Dunstable and imprisoned him at Bedford Castle.

The king sent an army to lay siege to the castle and ordered a “forlorn hope” band of Dunstable people to attack the outer walls. They did this successfully and were allowed to keep the ensuing plunder.

The eight-week siege ended when fires were lit in tunnels under the castle's inner walls, causing sections to collapse. Over 200 attackers were killed in the fighting and the soldiers of the garrison were hanged.

Tony Woodhouse was talking to the society about the various castles built in Bedfordshire by the conquering Normans to maintain control of the area.

They included the motte and bailey castle on Totternhoe knolls, used as a watchtower over the surrounding area, and the stronghold at Luton for which the river was diverted to provide a moat – and to control the water supply. Castle Street is so named as a reminder of what once stood there.

Mar 13

Who Was Who At The Hoo
Felicity Brimblecombe features the lives of Luton Hoo's former gardeners, gamekeepers, policemen
and, of course, its owners.

A factual, local, equivalent to the fiction of Downton Abbey was given to the Dunstable History Society by Felicity Brimblecombe, who spoke about the gardeners and other servants who worked at Luton Hoo.

The mansion, now a hotel, was once a stately home surrounded by woods and parkland covering some 5,000 acres.

The head gardener from 1904 was Arthur William Metcalfe, who had a staff of about 55 people to look after the tennis courts, cricket grounds and a range of hot houses, as well as the estate which stretched over what became Luton Airport and the Vauxhall factory.

Felicity showed members rare 100-year-old colour photos, taken using the glass Autochrome method, which pictured Lady Zia Wernher in the walled garden at the Hoo.

The mansion was a good place to work, with many examples of staff staying there all their lives and being given a home there and a pension. Six generations of the Crew family served there. One gamekeeper, William Champion, was looked after for the rest of his life after he was shot in the face and blinded by a poacher.

Other servants went on to bigger things. Charles Kennett, who looked after the golf course at the Hoo, went on to become a golf-course designer in America. Harry Church, who was a police constable on the estate, rose to become deputy chief constable of Bedfordshire.

Apr 10

Time Flies at Old Warden
Alan Reed talks about the Shuttleworth Collection of vintage aircraft, housed in the aerodrome near Sandy.

The distinctive sound of a Spitfire's Merlin engine filled the Methodist Church hall in Dunstable during the history society's April meeting.

The source was one of a series of film clips featuring some of the aircraft housed at the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden.

Alan Reed's talk also included films of the collection's 1909 Bleriot Type XI, now the oldest flying aircraft in the world, and a Blackburn Type D monoplane built in 1912.

Mr Reed demonstrated how the vintage aircraft were made – and restored – and told the story of the collection's founder, Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, who inherited a family fortune founded by the manufacture of steam traction engines.

Money was almost no object as he obsessively tracked down the remnants of old aircraft and brought them back to flying life. The remains of the Blackburn monoplane were traced to the back of a barn in Wittering in 1938 and when the farmer proved reluctant to move his store of hay, an impatient Richard bought the barn as well as all its contents.

Richard had a short but distinguished career as a racing driver, winning the first British Grand Prix at Donnington in 1935. The following year, he crashed in the South African Grand Prix and was unconscious for 17 days. His mother made him promise to give up racing, but he continued flying and died in an accident in misty weather in 1940.

Today, seven engineers, with help of many volunteers, use immense skill and knowledge to keep the collection's 52 aeroplanes airworthy.

May 08

Exploring Blow's Downs
Roger Pepworth produces a few edible surprises during his description of the flora and fauna found at one of Dunstable's least-known beauty spots.

An unusual start to the society's meeting was provided by Roger Pepworth who invited members to sample home-made jam produced from trees growing wild on Blow's Downs, Dunstable.

They then had to guess which fruit (blackberries, plums, elderberries, crab apples, rosehips, sloes, hoars and edible rowan) had provided the ingredients.

Mr Pepworth enthusiastically described the glories of one of the town's best-kept secrets: six miles of countryside just ten minutes' walk from the town centre.

The chalk grassland is a haven for plants and wildlife. Migrating birds famously rest there, a badger sett has been occupied for at least 50 years, orchids grow in profusion, and the rare parasitic knapweed broomrape blooms in June and July.

The sunken pathway called Shire Ditch, just above the present Tesco store, was once the boundary between Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. The quarry nearby provided chalk for the Blow's Downs limeworks which had seven kilns and used a railway siding to transport mineral-laden trucks on to the Skimpot branch line.

The name of the hills has nothing to do with the breeze. Locals became used to calling the area by the name of the man who farmed there: John Blow.

Sep 11

English Heritage
Katie Carmichael, part of the team which has been studying the hat industry in this area,
talks about the work of English Heritage .

The years when Dunstable and Luton were centres for the hat industry were recalled at the history society during a talk by Katie Carmichael.

Katie is part of a team from English Heritage which is studying the remaining buildings connected with hat manufacturing in the area. A report will soon be published which will make recommendations about which of these should be preserved.

Many hundreds of people were employed in the industry, whether they were working at home plaiting straw, or in factories assembling the plait into hats. The early prosperity of this area depended upon their success.

Katie showed pictures of Luton's old plait hall and the town's surviving factories, some of which have now been converted for other uses. Children as young as three or four provided income for their family by plaiting straw, and the society was shown photos of plait schools near Redbourne and Markyate where the pupils assembled plait to pay for their lessons.

Details were shown of a house in Edward Street, Dunstable, which appears to have been purpose-built to provide facilities for people working at home in the hat trade.

Oct 09

East Anglian Film Archive
A film show of preserved television and newsreel features including coverage of Dunstable in the 1950s
and the visit by the Prince of Wales to Luton in the 1930s.

A film about Dunstable in 1966 was the main attraction at the October meeting of the Dunstable and District Local History Society.

It showed what was described as “a sleepy town now wide awake and kicking”. Workers at the town's truck factories were earning £20 -£25 for a 40-hour week (much more than the national average) and people were flocking to the town to buy its cheap houses and visit its large array of shops.

The newsreel, presented by Dunstable librarians Daniela Vuolo and Jane Gill on behalf of the East Anglian Film Archive, included scenes inside the newly built Queensway Hall, with town clerk Jack Smith and councillor Walter Creasey among the personalities easily recognised. There was some ironic laughter when the commentator added comments about Dunstable's traffic system being designed to cope with the area's expansion.

More laughter greeted a short film made in 1950 by popular novelist Ursula Bloom, where she gave her views of what women look for when choosing a new car. She gave a rather patronising emphasis to the need for built-in vanity mirrors and storage space for make-up kits.

There were more-serious scenes of Luton in 1926, when hundreds of troops paraded outside the railway station for the start of a visit by Edward Prince of Wales. The silent film included a drumhead service in Luton Town's football ground at Kenilworth Road and a military march through George Street. Rioters had burned down Luton's town hall about seven years previously, but its derelict site was carefully avoided by the 1926 cameras.

There are many more films from the archive available to view on the internet…www.eafa.org.uk

Nov 13

Medieval Dunstable
A preview of events planned for Dunstable to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of Dunstable Priory.

Progress being made on the Dunstable Medieval Project was enthusiastically described to the history society by the project leader, Jean Yates.

Jean was instrumental in securing a Lottery Grant to fund an immense amount of work being undertaken by a host of local volunteers.

One initiative by the Manshead Archaeological Society has been to trace the foundations still remaining of the old Priory monastery, the huge building which was demolished during the reign of King Henry VIII.

The Priory, before being dissolved, had inherited vast amounts of land throughout the country, and one of the projects has been to list the areas which once belonged to Dunstable and to discover how they were administered.

The canons of the Priory kept a yearly diary of local and national events. This has now been translated from the Medieval Latin and will be published next year.

Audio guides are being prepared for visitors to the Priory Church and a medieval physic garden is to be planted in Priory Gardens.

Dunstable was a major centre for medieval tournaments which involved hundreds of armoured knights taking part in massive mock battles. Descriptions of these will be included in a book containing much other research about life in medieval Dunstable. The information will also be made available on a website and will form the basis for a display in Priory House. There will also be various concerts and events in the Priory and on Priory Meadow.

   
2011  
Jan 11

Star Names at the Queensway.
Richard Walden, former town clerk of Dunstable, talks about the famous personalities who appeared at the old Queensway Hall in Dunstable.

A Hawkwind concert at Dunstable's Queensway Hall in 1972 may well be the most celebrated event ever to have happened in the town.

That was the suggestion of Richard Walden, Dunstable's former town clerk, when he spoke to a packed audience at Dunstable and District Local History Society.

Sections of Hawkwind's performance, fronted by Lemmy Kilmister (later with Motorhead) were recorded for television's Top Of The Pop and often repeated. The clips are now on the internet's YouTube, and have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. And every time, the credits mention “the Dunstable concert”.

Another much-viewed clip on YouTube is of a 1972 David Bowie concert at the Queensway, filmed by an amateur cameraman at the side of the stage.

Mr Walden first visited the hall as a student when he was among hundreds of people who travelled to Dunstable to see folk singer Tom Paxton.

Later, as a local government officer responsible for the hall, he was involved in the backstage negotiations for many of its famous concerts. They included bands like REM, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum and Iron Maiden. ELO arrived very late for a gig and their notoriously tough manager (Sharon Osbourn's dad!) agreed to accept half the normal fee in compensation.

In the days of punk rock, the Sex Pistols were early successes. But audience behaviour became unacceptable. Debbie Harry of Blondie refused to go on stage at one point because of the threatening behaviour of the crowd. And a concert by The Clash, singing a rewritten anthem titled Dunstable Is Burning, ended in a semi riot which made headlines nationwide. All this caused much local heart-searching and the hall decided to cancel the next concert, for which the Boomtown Rats had been booked. The council had to pay compensation to Bob Geldof and his colleagues.

There were problems of another kind when the legendary rock singer Little Richard appeared. Astonishingly, it was a financial disaster – less than 200 people turned up.

Another famous flop was the visit by world-famous harmonica player Larry Adler. There were so few people in the audience that he invited them all on to the stage to listen to anecdotes of great days on Broadway and Hollywood.

Mr Walden has particularly unusual memories of the group called Kenny whose date in Dunstable clashed with their recorded appearance on Top of the Pops. They particularly wanted to watch the show but there was no television at the Queensway. So the group walked to Mr Walden's partially furnished flat in Union Street where they sat on the floor in front of his black-and-white TV.

Live wrestling bouts, hosted by commentator Kent Walton, were televised regularly on Saturday afternoons from Dunstable, as Lunch Box on ITV, and Friday Night Is Music Night on radio.

Much is written about the great days of the California Ballroom in Dunstable but Mr Walden feels that there is an equally interesting story to be told about the old Queensway Hall.

Feb 08

Adventures of a local thatcher
Totternhoe man David Underwood – “Dave the Thatch” of BBC Three Counties Radio – describes his work. He has been looking after the roofs of historic buildings locally for some 40 years.

A man who, for the past 40 years, has been thatching many of the area's most beautiful buildings gave a talk about his work to the history society.

David Underwood, of Totternhoe, showed photos of numerous local pubs, farms and cottages whose roofs of woven reed and straw are evidence of his skill.

There are just two examples in Dunstable: the thatched roof of the Norman King public house, and a gazebo (once perhaps an ice house) at the back of the old people's flats in Church Street.

Further afield, he has worked on buildings at Milton Keynes, Winfield, Pulloxhill, Totternhoe, Tilsworth and Woburn (to mention just a few).

One unusual job was to thatch a pavilion at the cricket ground at Shuttleworth for a period scene in the BBC film drama Portrait Of A Marriage. After all that work, the scene took only 30 seconds of screen time!

David showed history society members examples of the tools of his trade, as well as photographs of the fire hooks still displayed at Eaton Bray church. These were used in former times to pull blazing thatch from a roof to prevent a fire from spreading.

Mar 08

The story of Leyland Coaches
Mike Sutcliffe specialises in restoring these old vehicles at his base in Totternhoe.

A man who has had a lifelong interest in vintage vehicles, and who now freely admits that his hobby has got out of hand, gave a talk to members of Dunstable and District Local History Society at their monthly meeting.

Mike Sutcliffe has created a world-renowned collection of lovingly restored buses at his home in Totternhoe.

They have all been acquired in a truly derelict state, and brought back to their original, pristine, glory with enormous attention to detail.

The old Leyland buses, including a 1908 Leyland X-type and a London Pirate “Chocolate Express” of 1924, were beautifully crafted and lavishly decorated vehicles.

Mr Sutcliffe has scoured old photographs and advertisements to ensure that his restoration work is accurate in every detail, even going to the extent of consulting the original patents when some parts have had to be completely remade. He has even had some of the seating upholstery rewoven to the original designs and has collected the remains of scores of other vehicles to provide authentic spare parts.

History society members were equally fascinated to see photographs of the derelict buses before they were brought back to life. The remains of one were found covered by undergrowth in a hedge and another had been used as a mobile home, surrounded by a patchwork of new walls and roof.

Apr 12

The history of Chew's House
This beautiful building, originally a charity school, is one of the gems of Dunstable. Hugh Garrod tells its story.

This area had an enormous stroke of good fortune when a 17th-century merchant named William Marshe decided to move his family to healthy Dunstable, well away from his business in disease-ridden London.

His daughter Elizabeth married a Dunstable haberdasher named Thomas Chew and the children from this union had a huge impact on the town. They included William Chew, who made a fortune as a distiller, and Jane Cart and Frances Ashton, whose names live on as a result of the many bequests they made to Dunstable.

Hugh Garrod, in a talk to Dunstable and District Local History Society, concentrated on the foundation of Chew's School, whose building (the first purpose-built school in south Bedfordshire) still stands in High Street South. It provided free education to boys whose parents were members of the Church of England. The money for this came from the income from the many farms which William Chew had purchased in the area. Watling School in Bull Pond Lane was built on a meadow which he had owned.

Mr Garrod's talk outlined the widespread connections in the community which developed from the activities of the family, the schoolmasters and the scholars.

Jane Cart, for instance, owned the Sugar Loaf Hotel – among many other properties. An extension to the school eventually became the town library and is now the home of the Little Theatre. William Hambling, master at the school for many years, played a leading part in Dunstable life. William Derbyshire, author of one of the early histories of Dunstable, was a former scholar.

Two statues of boys dressed in the blue uniforms of the charity school can still be seen above its front door. The original statues were stolen some years ago and never recovered. Replicas were made which are remarkably accurate, as Mr Garrod proved by showing recently discovered photographs of the originals.

Sep 13

In Search of Convict Ancestors
Judy Davies tells of her quest to unravel the story of three men from Houghton Regis and Stanbridge who were sentenced to transportation at Bedford Assizes in 1849.

Judy Davies, formerly of Dunstable, had always been fascinated by a family story about an ancestor who was transported as a convict to Australia. But when she decided to research the details the story became even more amazing.

She told members of Dunstable and District Local History Society about one of her first discoveries – a detailed report in the Beds Times in 1849 of the trial of three local men for wounding two police constables at Stanbridge while resisting arrest.

Two of them, George White and Thomas Dockerill, were sentenced to be transported. But Thomas, guilty of the most serious assault, somehow avoided the awful journey, during which he would have been chained below deck on a disease-ridden convict ship with little food or sanitation. Instead he was sent to work on the quarries at Portland and Gibraltar, and eventually served many years in Dartmoor Prison while his wife campaigned for his release. Surprisingly, the documentation about this still survives.

Meanwhile George White, whose family lived in a cottage at the foot of the chalk cutting near Dunstable, had indeed been sent to Australia, and never managed to return home. He died in 1901 aged 77. Judy has been able to visit the places where he was forced to live and found, to her surprise, that it was possible to trace much of what had happened. His cottage, in a remote town called Gwalla, is now part of a museum.

After a huge amount of research, Judy decided to write it all down for a book. That became a story in itself when a computer virus deleted 40,000 words of text and she had to begin again. But the book, titled Selling Sparrows, is now on sale.

Oct 11

GBS and Me
Terry Mills of Luton, a volunteer guide at Ayot St Lawrence, talks about George Bernard Shaw and the playwright's home at Shaw's Corner.

The local connections of the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw were described by Terry Mills to members of the Dunstable and District Local History Society.

Mr Mills, well known as a drama producer in Luton, is a volunteer guide at Shaw's Corner in Ayot St Lawrence, where the playwright lived for 43 years.

Mr Mills worked as a managing clerk for Currall and Randall, of Upper George Street, Luton, who were Shaw's country solicitors, and had heard many anecdotes about Shaw from the firm's senior partner, Ivo Currall.

Shaw also had connections with Harold White, owner of the Leagrave Press and the White Crescent Press in Luton. Mr White printed many of the notoriously amusing postcards sent out by Shaw as a ready way of dealing with the nuisance mail which almost overwhelmed him. And the Leagrave Press produced Shaw's last book, the Rhyming Picture Guide to Ayot St Lawrence.

In his old age Shaw was taken to Luton and Dunstable Hospital for a fractured thigh after falling while pruning a fruit tree. Despite the careful attention there of the orthopaedic surgeon, Mr L.W. Plewes, he insisted on being taken home, saying “what is the good of trying to repair an ancient monument”. He died a few weeks afterwards.

Shaw, who originally became famous as a music and theatre critic, wrote over 60 plays. These included St Joan, Pygmalion, Caesar and Cleopatra, The Millionairess, The Doctor's Dilemma and The Devil's Disciple, which were all filmed. Pygmalion became the basis for the musical My Fair Lady, and the royalties continue to support the work of such organisations as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

The composer, Edward Elgar, was a particular friend as was T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and a host of ladies who found the philandering Shaw irresistibly attractive.

Dec 13

More stories of Mechanical Music
Terry Pankhurst returns with more working replicas of medieval organs. It makes an appropriately seasonal meeting and tuneful demonstration.

Dunstable and District Local History Society members listened at their Christmas meeting to tunes produced by an amazing array of mechanical musical instruments assembled and restored by Terry Pankhurst.

He was paying a return visit to the society to talk about the history of the instruments, which included an American music box from 1885. These were used by clergymen in the Wild West to accompany hymns. “We will gather at the river” was the example played to the Dunstable audience.

There was also a working facsimile of an instrument originally produced in Roman times. A mummified example was excavated at Pompeii.

Among the visitors to the talk was local man John Smith, one of the leading designers of mechanical music organs whose published plans, available through the internet, have inspired many people to build their own.

John played one of his latest designs - a mechanical piano accordion. The tune he chose to illustrate its range of sound was Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Time To Say Goodbye”. It was a poignant choice because, by coincidence, the same song had been sung the previous day at the funeral of one of the society's most popular members, Ivor Cole.

   
2010  
Jan 12

The Story of Luton's Street Names.
Howard Chandler has researched the names commemorated on the road signs of Dunstable's neighbour and has uncovered some fascinating facts.

How many people know why the street where they live was given its name? In Dunstable there is a book, by Richard Walden, which provides the answers. But in Luton the information is only just beginning to be published.

Dunstable History Society’s monthly meeting heard a talk by Howard Chandler whose studies of Luton street names are now appearing on his website, www.lutonstreetnames.co.uk

Oakley Road, for instance, is named after two Mayors of the town, Edwin and Albert Oakley. They are among quite a small group of the town’s first citizens to be similarly honoured. Others include Asher Hucklesby, George Warren, Harry Arnold and, recently, Frank Lester.

Vauxhall is similarly commemorated. Most people know about the sources for Wyvern Close, Cavalier Close and Viscount Close, but less familiar are Edkins Close, Hancock Drive, Kidner Close and Pomeroy Grove, all named after men who pioneered innovations at the Vauxhall works. But Carlton Close was built BEFORE Vauxhall used the name for one of its models.

Hewlett Road remembers Hilda Hewlett, the first woman to hold a pilot’s certificate. She founded the Hewlett-Blondeau aircraft factory in Luton in 1914 and built 800 planes during the First World War. But Nunnery Lane is a mystery (there has never been a nunnery in Luton) and Beckham Close was christened in 1986, long before the footballer became famous.

Feb 09

Houghton Memories
A vast collection of historic photos of Houghton Regis, whose boundaries once included a large part of what is now Dunstable, are screened for the first time, with a commentary provided by Pat Lovering and Sue King.

A screened display of photos of old Houghton Regis attracted a large audience to the hall at Dunstable Methodist Church last week. Pat Lovering, the speaker a t the monthly meeting of Dunstable and District Local History Society, had chosen ninety pictures from her vast collection, including many from the time when north Dunstable was still within the Houghton parish boundary. There were many views of Tithe Farm, the distinctive building in the High Street which gave the new estate its name. Well represented were the village ponds and pubs, as well as the Green in times when the grass was kept cropped by a flock of sheep from Poynters Farm rather than by mowers. A view of the farm, however, is one picture which Mrs Lovering has not yet seen, and she is still hoping that one might be discovered in an old family photo album. First World War pictures included scenes on the Green when soldiers of the Signal Corps were based there and turned it into a sea of mud. And one view of the village’s fire brigade included a rare photo of Mr Brandreth, owner of Houghton Hall.

Mar 09

Bedfordshire Breweries
Well-known historian James Collett-White talks about the various locations where ales were brewed, and the businessmen whose names have become synonymous with the drink they produced.
The talk follows the society's annual general meeting

James Collett-White, who has been an archivist for 35 years with the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service, showed slides of plans and documents to illustrate his talk about Bedfordshire breweries. These became huge businesses by providing a much safer alternative to plain water in the days when ponds and wells were often polluted.

Apr 13

Story of a Journeyman Printer
Former Waterlow's employee Harry Edwards recalls his years in the printing business.

The strange world of printers, where sizes are measured in points and picas, and trade union branches are called chapels, was described by Harry Edwards to Dunstable and District Local History Society.
Harry began his career at the Herts Mercury in Hertford, but spent some years working in the giant printing plant of Waterlow’s in Dunstable.
That huge factory, around quarter of a mile in length, has now been completely demolished and today houses cover the site, behind Ashton Middle School.
Harry amused the audience with numerous stories about the idiosyncrasies of a printer’s life. At one time, for instance, it was common for printers to take snuff. They were handling metal type rather than computers and the snuff helped to alleviate the effects of lead poisoning.

May 11

Exile in the Chilterns
Neil Rees recounts the war-time exile here of King Zog and the Albanian Royal Family.

King Zog of Albania was one of many European leaders who found refuge in England after their country was invaded during the Second World War. His adventurous story, including his war-time days living locally (at Parmoor House, near High Wycombe), was told to Dunstable and District Local History Society by Neil Rees, whose book on the subject is soon to be published.
Zog, the son of a chieftain, became Prime Minister of his country in 1921 and was made President and then King when his country voted to become a monarchy rather than a republic. His efforts to modernise Albania came to end when it was occupied by Italian forces. He and his family eventually fled to England in an escape organised by naval attaché Ian Fleming, who later became famous as the creator of James Bond.
Surrounded by bodyguards (he had survived many assassination attempts), King Zog lived quietly in the Chilterns although local people became used to seeing his wife, Queen Geraldine, on her frequent visits to the cinemas in Marlow and High Wycombe. He died in 1961.
One of his misfortunes here was that English people continued to find his name rather funny and, in fact, there had been a famous cleaning fluid called Zog whose slogan had been: “If there’s dirt on your plate, Zog it off!”
In fact, Zog (meaning bird) is a very honourable name in Albanian.
Albania was taken over by Communists at the end of the war and became notorious for its repressive regime under Emver Hoxha. Communist domination came to an end in 1992 and ten years later the Albanian government allowed the Royal family to return. King Zog’s son very narrowly lost a referendum which would have restored the monarchy.

June 10

Summer Outing to Bletchley Park War-Time Code-Breaking Centre

July 17 Boat Trip down the Thames to visit the Thames Barrier
Aug 13 Outing to Amersham Museum and Old Town

Sept 14

Gary Cooper, Hollywood film star, Dunstable Schoolboy.
John Buckledee talks about the local connections of the famous actor, Oscar-winning star of High Noon, with family photographs collected from his Dunstable and Houghton relations.

A film review in a Luton newspaper in November 1929 led indirectly to film star Gary Cooper's Dunstable address being traced by modern researchers.

The critic had written about a Cooper movie showing at Luton's old Empire Cinema, and had commented that not many people knew that the star had attended Dunstable Grammar School, where he had played the fife in the school's army cadet band and had once broken his arm in the school gymnasium.

That prompted a letter from Mr W.H. Barton of Dunstable who said that the reviewer was confusing Gary with his older brother Arthur, who was at the school at the same time. Mr Barton was sure of his facts, because the two boys had stayed with him at his house in High Street North, Dunstable. And Mr Barton's full address was printed.

Former News-Gazette editor John Buckledee told the story in a talk about Cooper's Dunstable connections to Dunstable and District Local History Society.

The cutting referring to Mr Barton's letter had lain forgotten in the Luton News reference library for many years, and after Gary Cooper became a major star his Bedfordshire address was always given as the White House in Houghton Regis High Street.

In fact he had lived just across the road from what is now Ashton Middle School. When Mr Barton's letter was discovered, it began a hunt for the Dunstable address, complicated by the fact that the address had been misprinted as 15 High Street North. It should have been number 157 – a mistake discovered only after a large number of false trails had been followed.

Arthur Cooper enrolled at Dunstable Grammar School in 1909 and Gary followed in 1910. Confusion about the date when the boys returned to the family ranch in Montana has only recently been resolved. A hunt through passenger lists this year revealed that Mrs Cooper and her two sons set sail on the SS Celtic from Liverpool to New York, on August 29 1912.
Oct 12

Local Archaeology.
Tim Vickers, field archaeologist at Luton Museum, describes recent excavations in this area.

Tim Vickers, field archaeologist at Luton Museum, used eight objects to tell the early story of Dunstable to the October meeting of the town's history society.

He began with a Palaeolithic handaxe found at Blow's Downs, and referred frequently to the Victorian archaeologist Worthington Smith who was so active in recording discoveries made in and around the town during its early expansion.

He showed photographs of a Mesolithic adze found at Sewell, some Neolithic pottery, and then a bronze dagger and a beautiful brooch uncovered at Marina Drive by the Manshead Archaeological Society.

An Iron Age saw had been found at Puddle Hill and, amazingly, enough pieces of a glass vessel at the bottom of a Roman well to enable it to be pieced together again.

His talk ended with illuminated pages from the medieval Dunstable Fraternity Register.

He was shown a tiny coin found by Dunstable schoolboy Daniel Field buried deep in a garden on the Laing estate in Dunstable. One side of the coin shows the design for a penny dating from the reign of King James I, but the metal is thicker than would have been the case for silver coins of the time. The reverse of the coin has an early Tudor design, leading to the conclusion that it is a souvenir replica. But how it came to be buried three feet beneath the Laing estate is a mystery.

Nov 9

The British Film Institute.
Steve Bryant, senior curator, television, with the BFI at Berkhamsted, talks about the institute's work in preserving old movies.

Film clips ranging from an early John Cleese comedy show to an 1895 newsreel of the Dublin rebellion were shown to members of the Dunstable and District Local History Society.

The speaker was Steve Bryant, senior curator (television) with the British Film Institute.

The BFI preserves vast numbers of British television programmes, as well as movies, at its facilities in Berkhamsted.

These include rare recordings which were once thought to have been lost or destroyed. A large number of early British TV drama productions, for instance, have recently been discovered in the Library of Congress in America. Recordings of the shows had been sold to US television which, fortunately, had later donated them to the library.

These included Sean Connery in a Jean Anouilh play two years before he starred as James Bond, and Jane Asher in a schools production of Romeo and Juliet. Clips from both plays were screened at Dunstable by Mr Bryant.

Dec 14

'Stumpy Sanderson's Scrapbook'
Andrew Brammer provides a humorous storytelling evening of slightly tall tales about growing up in Dunstable in the 1970s.

Master storyteller Andrew Brammer, whose slightly tall tales about his early life in Dunstable have been entertaining packed audiences across the country, returned to his roots for this meeting.

He was invited by Dunstable and District Local History Society to perform some of his amusing yarns, under the title Stumpy Sanderson's Scrapbook, which describe the adventures of a group of mischievous lads in 1970s Dunstable – in the days of flared trousers, MacFisheries and the Corona man.

His recollections included a greyhound betting scam, which just might have been at the old track at Skimpot, and the results of an unofficial cricket match at what could have been the recreation ground near Liscombe Road.

Andrew lived nearby, at Jeans Way, and went to school at St Christopher's and Manshead. In the history society audience he readily recognised one of his old masters, Omer Roucoux, and also the Manshead librarian, Joan Curran, who once caught him reading the Melody Maker when he should have studying something else!

His mother is part of the Goodyear family which ran a hat factory and produced a Mayor of Luton. His father worked at the Bedford truck plant in Dunstable.

Andrew now lives in Norfolk but is doing his best to make the name of Dunstable more widely known. As he said last week: “You can take the boy out of Dunstable but you can't take Dunstable out of the boy”.

   

2009

 
Jan 13

Reilly, Ace of Spies - The Story of Secret Agent Sidney Reilly, by Andrew Cook

Sidney Reilly was an adventurer and confidence trickster whose exploits provided some of the inspiration for the James Bond character created by Ian Fleming.
Reilly’s exploits were described to Dunstable and District Local History Society by Andrew Cook, principal of Moorlands Independent School, Luton, whose best-selling book, Ace Of Spies – The True Story of Sidney Reilly, is now in its fifth edition.
Reilly was a Russian who changed his identity by the stratagem (later used in the book The Day Of The Jackal) of applying for a copy of a birth certificate in the name of a baby who had died at an early age but whose details were recorded on a gravestone. The certificate was then used to obtain a passport.
He gained his first fortune in Britain by captivating a young wife whose elderly, wealthy husband died suddenly while abroad on holiday, and whose death certificate, “natural causes”, was signed by a bogus doctor who was, apparently, Reilly in disguise.
Reilly invested in a soap company whose exports from Britain to Russia subsequently concealed large quantities of forged Russian banknotes, printed by Reilly’s contact in London.
He set up a business in China through which he obtained plans of the defences at Port Arthur. He sold these to the Japanese, enabling them to attack the harbour. Reilly reappeared in Tokyo where he was royally welcomed and rewarded.
Britain’s fledgling secret service bureau, set up in 1903, recruited Reilly to investigate French involvement in the search for oil in Iran and Iraq. Posing as a geologist he convinced French bankers that there could not possibly be any oil there, enabling Britain to move in. When oil WAS found, in 1908, Britain was the majority shareholder in the Anglo Iranian oil company, now BP.
Reilly made a further fortune during the First World War, using his knowledge of Russia to arrange sales of armaments from manufacturers in the United States to the Tsar’s huge army. Reilly took a percentage from every rifle sold.
His adventures ended after the Russian revolution when he was tempted to try to overthrow the Bolshevik government by organising robberies at Russian museums and art galleries, selling the stolen artefacts to collectors in America, and using the proceeds to buy weapons for anti-Communist fighters. He was in Russia trying to inspire support for the scheme when he was captured by the Russian secret police, and shot.
There were rumours that this was yet another trick, and that he had assumed another identity. But one of Andrew Cook’s exclusives for his book was a photo of Reilly’s corpse, obtained by him from KGB archives.

Feb 10

Dunstable Museum Trust - The story of the trust's campaigns, with photos of old Dunstable, by Barry Horne

A campaign by a group of local people to prevent the demolition of an old building in Dunstable, eventually took on a much wider significance.
The old Rixson’s antiques rooms in Mentmore House, Church Street, were in a semi-derelict state and looked likely to follow the fate of neighbouring buildings which had already disappeared.
But a pressure group led by the late Vaughan Basham spearheaded a successful fight, involving two public inquiries, to save the 16th century structure. It was eventually converted into a restaurant and, today, diners at Chez Jerome can look up to see the original dragon beam which supports the overhang into a neighbouring walkway, and which proved a significant architectural factor in the preservation battle.
Barry Horne told members of Dunstable and District Local History Society about the campaign which eventually led to the formation of the Dunstable Museum Trust, because at one stage it was hoped that the council would buy Mentmore House and convert it into a museum. A series of fund-raising events and publications were organised to provide cash for this project.
When Dunstable Town Council purchased Priory House, the Trust was able to donate £13,500 to help the council create the present heritage centre.

Mar 10

Antiques Examined, by Simon Rowell, of Peacocks

SOME of the extraordinary collections which have come under the hammer in the auction rooms of W & H Peacock, of Bedford, were described to members of Dunstable and District Local History Society last week.
Simon Rowell told the sad stories of bankrupt firms whose assets had to be sold, which meant that Peacock’s found themselves auctioning, for instance, four tons of currants, a machine for making toilet rolls, 25 tanks of tropical fish, 20,000 fruit trees, a banana import licence and 18,000 girls’ dresses.
And house clearance sales had produced some unusual discoveries. Among piles of old Luton News and magazines he discovered a valuable hand-written letter from John Wesley and, in another house, a wad of very damp banknotes hidden in a freezer.
Mr Rowell gave members some tips about how to sell their special or more-mundane items, and mentioned the changing tastes which meant that designer-ware produced in the 1960s and 70s was becoming much more in demand at the firm’s Saturday auctions, while some of the more traditional china was becoming less popular.

Apr 14

Redbournbury Watermill, flour making the traditional way, by Justin James

The story of Redbournbury Watermill was told to members of Dunstable and District Local History Society last week.
Justin James described how flour is made in the traditional way at the mill, which stands at the end of a tranquil lane just off the A5, just south of Redbourn village.
The James family have worked the mill since 1987 but had a traumatic start there. It was badly damaged by a fire and then a storm – and they were not insured. English Heritage has played a huge part in restoring the building.

May 12 History of the River Lea, our local river, described by Richard Thomas
June 18

Behind-the-scenes outing to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Members of the Dunstable and District Local History Society have been on an outing to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where they were given a conducted tour around the immense backstage areas.
The theatre rises over nine storeys above and below the stage, with rehearsal rooms for the ballet and opera companies plus workshops to create and repair hundreds of costumes. One thousand people are employed there.
Members watched as huge sets for that night’s opera were erected, having been transported to London from the company’s storage warehouses in South Wales.

July 16 Outing to the Military Intelligence Museum, Chicksands.

July 18

Victorian History Day, Priory House and gardens.
Family Archaeology Day, Totternhoe Memorial Hall (includes talk on Totternhoe Quarries by Joan Curran and guided tours of the Knolls and Maiden Bower).

Aug 22 Outing to Sulgrave Manor, ancestral home of the George Washington family.
Sept 8

Luton Hoo – Past, Present and Future.
Zena Dickinson, for many years a key member of the staff at the stately home, describes the treasures housed there, its use as a location for many famous films, and its transformation into the present luxury hotel.

SCENES from about 50 major films, as well as music videos and TV adverts, were shot at Luton Hoo during the years between its closure as a stately home and its opening as the present prestigious hotel.
Zena Dickinson, who has worked at the Hoo in various capacities for 23 years, made the arrangements for the film companies during the years when their fees provided the main source of income for the mansion.
She described her experiences at the monthly meeting of Dunstable and District Local History Society.
Best-known advertisement was perhaps for Walkers Crisps, with Gary Linneker.
The most profitable for the Hoo was the three-month shoot of the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Open, with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. But the most influential in attracting further film companies to the estate was the hugely successful Four Weddings and a Funeral, with Hugh Grant.
Zena recalled that the writers had included a comedy scene based around a vanity cupboard which they had seen in one of the bedrooms. The confused Hugh Grant character walked into this by mistake, thinking he was leaving the room.
Zena’s problem, when filming began, was trying to trace which of the 400 rooms at the Hoo had so inspired the writers.
Zena described the purchase of the mansion by Julius Wernher and the financial difficulties which arose during the building of the Capability Green business park. The present owners, Elite Hotels, have spent £60 millions on suitably transforming the building. That’s in addition to the original purchase price.

Oct 13

British Coinage
Secret Societies, piracy, politics and murder – they are all part of the talk about the origins of our currency, by Stephen Hoole, a Fellow of the Royal Numismatic Society,

An ingenious idea to discourage highwaymen from robbing stagecoaches was developed in the 18th century.
Passengers were encouraged to change their money into tokens which could only be cashed on arrival at their destination. So, for instance, a traveller from London to Bath would carry tokens which were only valuable in Bath, which made them of limited value to robbers along the route.
The tokens, the forerunners of today’s travellers’ cheques, were beautifully designed and are now highly collectable. They were the subject of a talk given by Stephen Hoole, a Fellow of the Royal Numismatic Society, to Dunstable and District Local History Society.
Other examples he displayed included tokens, picturing warships, which were issued to sailors. They could be spent only within a mile or two of the harbour, which made it difficult for sailors to desert if they had no other money.
Prisoners released from Newgate were given tokens to pay for their first meal outside jail. The tokens were engraved with an accurate picture of what Newgate looked like in 1794.
The token system fell into disrepute as the result of an enormous scandal in 1811 when one of the companies issuing tokens did not have enough money to redeem them. The proprietor of the firm was hanged.

Nov 10

Yesteryear In The Gazette
A screened display of photos from the Dunstable Gazette's popular Yesteryear series will be presented by the paper's former editor John Buckledee. (Re-arranged meeting)

The News-Gazette’s weekly Yesteryear photographs were the subject of a talk by the newspaper’s former editor, John Buckledee, to Dunstable and District Local History Society.
The published photos are often a revelation, even to their owners, because they are reproduced full-page from originals which are sometimes family snapshots only a few inches wide. The enlargements reveal interesting details which previously could be seen only under a magnifying glass.
This was emphasised at the history society meeting when the computerised images were displayed, even larger, through a projector.
The knowledgeable audience was able to add many more details to what had originally been published. Doug Darby revealed, for instance, that his father had been part of the committee which went to Birmingham in the 1930s to discuss details of the transfer of the AC Sphinx factory to Dunstable. One eventual result was the building of the Northfields housing estate to accommodate those workers from Birmingham who wanted to move here with the firm. And many members confessed to being in the audience at the Queensway Hall when Prime Minister Harold Wilson was barracked during a General Election meeting.

Dec 8

History of Mechanical Music
Terry Pankhurst includes working replicas of medieval organs in his tuneful demonstration.


A collection of mechanical musical instruments assembled by Terry Pankhurst was displayed, and played, to members of Dunstable and District Local History Society.
They ranged from a comparatively simple 20-pipe organ made by Terry himself - “I was over the moon when it worked!” he said – to a more sophisticated electronic instrument whose pipe music is activated by a digital camera card.
The older instruments are operated by reels of thick paper pierced with holes to allow air to pass appropriately through the various organ pipes. It takes considerable musical skill to create the reels – Terry fascinated the audience by playing a version of Ravel’s Bolero where the arranger had made three slight, but very obvious, mistakes.
Terry is particularly proud to have rescued a wrecked musical box from the scrapyard. He spotted it in an antique shop in Dunstable marked “bombed November 1940” and spent £900 and months of work to restore it.
An unusual finale to the evening was a “stereo” version of Pomp and Circumstance using two mechanical instruments operated simultaneously by Terry and fellow enthusiast John Smith, of Flitwick.

 
2008  
Jan 8

The Whitbreads of Bedfordshire by the Lord Lieutenant, Sam Whitbread

A vivid description of the impeachment proceedings at Westminster of Lord Melville – a sensational example of 19th century sleaze – was given to members of Dunstable and District Local History Society by the Lord-Lieutenant of Bedfordshire, Sam Whitbread.
Mr Whitbread was giving a talk about his remarkable family, which has been a part of Bedfordshire life since at least the 13th century.
Six Whitbreads have sat in the House of Commons, spanning a total of 128 years. One of the most notable was Samuel Whitbread (1764-1815) who achieved national fame when he uncovered the financial manoeuvres of Lord Melville, who had undertaken a shady arrangement by which he was enriched by the interest accruing from Government funds. Samuel Whitbread was widely praised for his efforts to bring the lord to account.
Mr Whitbread was less popular in the country for his pacifism – he opposed the war with Napoleon – but he was one of the first to raise the issue of the evils of slavery and he initiated efforts to provide free education for children from poor families.
He used his considerable influence to raise an enormous sum of money to enable the theatre at Drury Lane to be rebuilt following a disastrous fire. The blaze had brought ruin to his friend, the playwright Sheridan, who had a mortgage on the theatre but who was under-insured.
The Whitbread family fortunes were founded by Samuel Whitbread (1720-1796) who began a brewery in London which used the best malt from Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, the best hops from Kent, and the most innovative techniques developed during the Industrial Revolution. The brewery grew to become one of the wonders of London, visited by the King and Queen, and producing barrels of porter of the finest quality.
The present Mr Sam Whitbread was chairman of the Whitbread company for eight years from 1984 and has overseen the growth of Whitbread farms from 70 acres to the present 3,000 acres. He has been a county councillor, a magistrate and an officer in numerous county organisations.

Feb 14

Napoleonic souvenirs of French prisoners of war, by Paul Chamberlain

TENS of thousands of soldiers and sailors surrendered to British forces during the Napoleonic Wars. They were then confined in floating hulks and prisons like Dartmoor, often for many years ¬– the crew of one French frigate captured in 1803 was not released until 1814.
So what did they do during their time in Britain?
Paul Chamberlain, of Stopsley, assured members of Dunstable and District Local History Society at their February meeting that the prisoners were NOT set to work on local building projects – anything which took jobs away from the British population was forbidden.
Instead, they set up business selling souvenirs and other services to the trippers who came on outings to see the prison ships.
The prisoners carved the bones remaining from their meat rations to create a variety of intricate models, particularly of war ships. Often, teams of men would combine their skills to produce the various parts required. The results were often so beautifully produced that they are now treasured by museums and collectors.
Paul’s slide show included many examples of the prisoners’ work, including facsimiles of banknotes, produced with pen and ink. The artists were hanged when their work was discovered.
But prisoners whose creations were encouraged by the prison authorities were sometimes able to amass quite considerable sums of money.

Mar 11

The story of Luton Girls Choir, by Margaret Hayle-Owens, with songs performed
by the Pasque Harmony

The story of Luton Girls Choir was told to members of the Dunstable and District Local History Society last week.
Margaret Hale-Owens spoke about the growth of the choir under the inspirational leadership of Arthur Davies. It became world-famous, with numerous best-selling records, broadcasts and concerts alongside such stars as Tommy Handley, Petula Clarke and, most famously, Richard Tauber.
Locally, they sang in front of the Queen at the opening of Luton Library (their performance included a song from Carousel which was slightly altered to omit a slightly risqué word) and with the Band of the Irish Guards at Dunstable’s Queensway Hall.
Margaret told of her first, nervous, audition and how this led to probationary membership of the choir and, eventually, the chance to become a soloist.
Her talk to the history society was interspersed with songs sung in the unique style of the choir by members of the Pasque Harmony, whose performances raise funds for Luton’s Pasque Hospice.
When Mr Davies died, the choir disbanded and his unique musical arrangements were destroyed or dispersed. The Pasque Harmony includes many former choir members who have memorised the old arrangements and who have been presented with some surviving scores which reappeared at an auction.
Poignantly for Margaret, the songs performed to history society members included one which had been sung by the Luton Girls Choir at her wedding – a bittersweet occasion because the choir was for single girls only and Margaret’s marriage meant retirement from the choir.
The history society meets at 7.45 pm on the second Tuesday of every month at the Methodist Church at the Square, Dunstable. The next meeting (on April 8) will hear a talk Tony Woodhouse who has made numerous conjectural drawings of old Dunstable, particularly of the Priory monastery which was demolished by order of King Henry VIII.

Mar 11 Annual General Meeting
April 8

Jounneys around the Priory, by Tony Woodhouse

MORE has been learned about Dunstable Priory in the past four years than in the previous 400 years.
Members of Dunstable and District Local History Society realised this as they heard a talk by Tony Woodhouse about the series of conjectural drawings he has been making of the Priory – the huge monastery which was demolished in the reign of King Henry VIII. The present Priory Church is just a small surviving remnant of the enormous original.
A geophysical survey by the Manshead Archaeological Society alongside the church across Priory Meadow has revealed the extent of the Priory and the position of its numerous buildings, which included an infirmary, huge kitchens and stables for 100 horses. It extended to within six feet of the present railings around Priory School and stretched down to the Watling Street and behind the present church towards Priory Road. The foundations of the Priory’s brew house have been traced beneath the gardens of the Saracen’s Head.
These recent discoveries have been added to Tony’s drawings which he is updating regularly as more information becomes available. They will soon be on display in Priory Meadow.
When the archaeological society was allowed to dig a trench alongside the church it revealed a large carved stone which is identical to stones found on the base of the cloisters of another, ruined, Augustinian priory. This has allowed Tony to draw a picture of what the Dunstable cloisters would have looked like. Scientific analysis of the stone has revealed that it was brought to Dunstable from a quarry in Somerset – it made a firmer foundation than the softer stone from Totternhoe which was used for most of the Priory.
Among the discoveries of the geophysical survey – the methods made famous by TV’s Time Team ¬- were the foundations of a large structure which could well have been the accommodation used by royal visitors to the Priory. Eventually, even this proved too small for kings and their courtiers, and a mini-palace was built somewhere to the north of the church – hence Kingsbury Court and the Old Palace Lodge. But no-one knows exactly where the palace stood and no trace of it has yet been discovered.
One mysterious structure faintly visible on the survey is out of alignment with the rest of the Priory foundations, and the educated guess is that this is a Roman building. English Heritage will not allow excavation of this at present but a well has been found which is definitely Roman. Could the monastery have been built over part of the Roman town which once existed around the crossroads?

May 13

Droll Stories from the Dunstable Borough Gazette, by Joan Curran and Rita Swift

VICTORIAN copies of the Dunstable Borough Gazette provided an unusual talk for Dunstable and District Local History Society.
Joan Curran and Rita Swift presented a series of droll stories from the local paper, including the tale of an escaped circus elephant which was recaptured when she tried to steal some food. The householder heard a noise and went downstairs to discover the animal’s trunk poking through the kitchen window in Church Street.
A more common occurrence recorded frequently in the Gazette was the theft of turnips or nutricious turnip leaves from farmers’ fields. There were a series of court cases when children, or their parents, were punished for the thefts, and the paper criticised otherwise respectable townspeople who were buying the stolen leaves from street urchins.
It also became an offence to skate on the frozen pond at Dunstable’s Kingsbury Farm – punishment was a fine or even eight to ten strokes of the birch.
Another court case arose from meetings of the skittle club at the Victoria pub. The landlord put a penny extra on the price of beer to cover the cost of gas lighting during club nights, and one customer caused such a violent fuss over this that the police were called.
One constable in the borough’s tiny police force pressed hard for promotion and the council eventually agreed to make him a sergeant – but for no extra wages. He was, however, allowed to wear lace on his uniform.

June 17 Vist to House of Commons/House of Lords
July 5/6 Dunstable History Weekend, Priory Gardens and Bennett's Rec
July 19 Outing to Ingatestone Hall
Aug 16 Outing to Sudely Castle
Sept 9

Bletchley Park, The Code Breaking Centre of World War II, by Simon Greenish

An Enigma code machine, captured in wartime from the Germans, was shown to members of the Dunstable and District Local History Society last week.
It was brought to the meeting by Simon Greenish, director of Bletchley Park, who spoke about the vast centre in and around the mansion there, whose secret code-breaking activities played a major part in the defeat of the Nazis.
The Enigma machine, whose settings were changed every day, enabled 158 million million million different codes to be used, and the Germans believed, justifiably, that their radio messages could never be understood by the British. In fact, the brilliant cryptologists at Bletchley learned how to interpret the codes very early in the war. The first break-through was made in a cottage in the stableyard at Bletchley House – described by Mr Greenish as one of the most important buildings in Britain.
Winston Churchill, calling the Bletchley code-breakers as “the geese that lay golden eggs – and never cackle”, ordered that they be given all the funds, equipment and staff that they needed, and the centre expanded enormously. This included the biggest card-indexing building ever erected – the system inside it was storing and cross-referencing 2,000,000 additional messages every week. Transmissions from U-boats in the Atlantic or from Rommell’s units in North Africa, for instance, were analysed for information about their movements, and the development of the Colossus machine meant that the British were even able to read Hitler’s top-level instructions to his generals.
Bletchley Park, which is now open to the public, has just received substantial grants from IBM and the PGP Corporation to enable some of its dilapidated buildings to be renovated. The news broke on the morning of Mr Greenish’s planned talk to the history society, and he arrived in Dunstable hotfoot from numerous TV appearances.

Oct 14

The story of the HMV dog - Anecdotes about the music business, by Barry Wolsey

A photograph of a mongrel dog listening to a phonograph became the basis for one of the world’s most famous logos – His Master’s Voice.
Barry Wolsey told the story of Nipper - so called because he was liable to bite the ankles of visitors to his owner’s photographic studio – to members of the Dunstable and District Local History Society last week.
Nipper had already died (in 1895) before a painting based on his photograph attracted the attention of a gramophone and typewriter company.
The painting was altered to incorporate a gramophone rather than the old-fashioned phonograph of the original, and it became the much-loved centre-piece for generations of HMV record labels.
Not every country welcomed the logo. In India, for instance, dogs were not regarded with so much affection as in England, and Nipper was replaced by a cobra! Italy, too, did not welcome the mongrel’s picture on operatic recordings – “singing like a dog” was a common form of abuse.

Nov 11 Dunstable in the First World War, by John Buckledee
Dec 9

Dunstable History Pageant of 1963, by Philip Buckle assisted by Douglas Darby

A recently rediscovered film of scenes from Dunstable Pageant, that huge community event in 1963, was screened at last week’s meeting of the Dunstable and District Local History Society.
The week-long pageant, enacting various events from Dunstable’s history, was the brainchild of Dunstable Rector Christopher Mackonochie. It involved hundreds of local people, who performed in Priory Gardens under the direction of broadcaster Dorian Williams.
Philip Buckle, who was property master for the event, told history society members some of the background stories and showed pageant photographs collected by the society.
History society member Hugh Garrod had arranged for the pageant film, mislaid for years, to be converted on to a DVD with the addition of a voice-over soundtrack provided by Doug Darby.
Mr Darby, who had been responsible for technical systems at the pageant, provided a short introduction to the screening, which was watched by a packed audience who also enjoyed a special Christmas buffet.

2007  
Jan 09

The Little Theatre by Mona Norris

A scrapbook from the early days of Dunstable Repertory Company, containing good-luck messages from such show business stars as Anna Neagle, Ivor Novello and Sybil Thorndike, was displayed by Rep veteran Mona Norris last week.
She was giving a talk about the local amateur dramatic company to a packed audience at the monthly meeting of the Dunstable and District Local History Society.
Mona has been a star of local theatre since appearing in The Cradle Song at Dunstable’s Roman Catholic Church in 1942.
A performance of Quiet Wedding in Dunstable Town Hall in 1944 was witnessed by Bernard Stuart Smith who was inspired by this to create a production of The Sacred Flame, the first in a long series of successful Rep shows at the old venue in High Street North. John Collins, who performed in that first play, is still a member of the Rep.
After the town hall was demolished, the Rep moved to the newly built Civic Hall at Queensway, but this was an unhappy experience with terrible acoustics spoiling the plays for many in the audience. But at least the hall provided the Rep with some unusual adventures – on one occasion the safety curtain refused to rise after the interval and the production could not continue. Rep member David Harris entertained the audience by describing what they WOULD have seen if all had gone well.
When a new library was built in Dunstable, the Rep was able to move to the old library building in High Street South where members created the Little Theatre, which is still flourishing today. A generous bequest from a Rep stalwart, Eileen Dymond, enabled the theatre to be extended – Rep members smiled when the Dymond Room, named in her memory, was made into the Rep’s first no-smoking area (Eileen was, famously, a very heavy smoker).
Eileen startled a local chemist when, aged over 70 and serving the Rep as a prop mistress, she asked for a large supply of condoms! Filled with fake blood, they were designed to burst alarmingly when an actor was stabbed on stage.
Mona was one of the Rep members who took part in the Dunstable Pageant in 1963. In charge of the sound at that spectacular production was history society member Douglas Darby, who has now written a detailed account of the event which is to be kept among the manuscripts at the society’s archive room at Priory House.

Feb 13

History of Soap by Mrs Do Vesty

MEMORIES of Monday washdays, when products with names like Omo, Draft and Lux flakes were believed to wash whiter then ever before, were recalled by Doreen ‘Do’ Vestey in a talk to members of Dunstable and District Local History Society.
Mrs Vestey’s subject was the history of soap, starting from the time in Babylon when women discovered that clothes became cleaner when washed in a river close to where animals had been roasted (a mixture of animal fat and potash from the fires ran into the water to create some soapy ingredients).
Subsequently soap, in its various configurations, had become part of our way of life in all sorts of unexpected ways. John Major had revived the use of a soap box during his election campaign, and a soap company’s sponsorship of the Lone Ranger serial story on American radio has led to all kinds of tv sagas being labelled as “soaps”. Mrs Vestey even demonstrated to an embarrassed member of the audience how it was possible to “soft soap” someone.
The Dunstable and District Local History Society meets at 7.45 on the second Tuesday of each month at the Methodist church hall at The Square, Dunstable.
The next meeting (on March 13, at which officers for the forthcoming year will also be elected) will hear a talk by well-known Dunstablian Philip Buckle about his family firm which was based in Middle Row, Dunstable. Visitors are welcome.

March 13

The Family Firm of Buckle by Philip Buckle

BEFORE the days of bank cards, acceptance of a cheque relied upon a gentleman’s word that it would, in fact, be honoured.
Alas, such trust was not always justified. Former Dunstable shopkeeper Philip Buckle, telling a series of amusing anecdotes about a tradesman’s life in “the good old days”, recalled that his father became so exasperated about the number of “bounced” cheques that he banned acceptance of any more… unless the customer was known to staff.
Philip ruefully remembered that the very first person he himself failed to recognise was the Duke of Bedford!
Philip, a true Dunstablian (he was born above his parents’ shop) was talking about the family business, Buckles of Dunstable, to members of Dunstable and District Local History Society.
The outfitters’ shop in Middle Row (now occupied by Butterton’s) was in one of the most historic parts of Dunstable – the stretch of timber-framed buildings in High Street South near the crossroads. Many of the original structures were destroyed in a disastrous fire in the 1800s but the ancient passageway next to the shop acted as a firebreak and prevented the blaze from spreading further. Charred timbers can still be seen in the attic of the shop as evidence of its narrow escape.
Middle Row had a further escape in more recent times, when a plan to modernise the area did not progress any further than the remodelling of the Blindell’s shop (now occupied by Ladbrokes).
Philip’s talk followed the annual meeting of the local history society at which tributes were paid to Hugh Garrod, who had decided to step down as chairman. Hugh has presided over 68 meetings of the society over the past eight years during which a research room has been created at Priory House, a lottery grant has been won, various local publications have been promoted and an informative newsletter regularly produced.

April 10

The History of Caddington Green by Terry Oliver

The palindrome around the font at Caddington Church intrigued a local history audience last week.
Terry Oliver described the carved lettering which, translated, reads “wash my sins, not my face alone” and which, in Latin, reads the same backwards as well as forwards.
Another curious fact concerned the church clock which was made in less-hectic times when minutes were less important than the hours, and so has only one hand instead of two.
Mr Oliver, chairman of the Caddington Local History Society, was talking to a large audience at the monthly meeting of Dunstable and District Local History Society and displayed an intriguing collection of village images including a recently discovered view of Caddington vicarage, drawn in 1809 and now in the Bodlean collection at Oxford.
More-recent photographs included competitors in the village’s Bedfordshire Clanger eating contest in which the winner downed the enormous pudding in no less than five minutes, 45 seconds. The traditional clangers, with meat at one end and jam at the other, were made, of course, in hard-to-swallow suet.
Mr Oliver, who was assisted with his talk by fellow members Peter Graham and Colin Stonestreet, included a photo of Tower House, so-called because a water tower once stood there. One local schoolboy, asked to guess the reason for its name, replied with impeccable logic: “Because it’s got Tower House written on it!”

May 08

The Military Intelligence Museum at Chicksands.by Mike Mockford

Aerial photographs which helped to win the wars against Germany were shown by Mike Mockford to members of the Dunstable and District Local History Society last week.
Mr Mockford, a former RAF photographer, is trustee of the Medmenham Collection of reconnaissance material which is part of the Intelligence Corps museum at MOD Chicksands.
Brave reconnaissance pilots photographed the trenches on the First World War battlefields using cameras with plate glass negatives. They were “sitting ducks” for enemy fighters…two-thirds of the kills achieved by the famous German flyer, the Red Baron, were of reconnaissance planes.
Mr Mockford showed the Second World War photos which pinpointed the whereabouts of German battleships and which first alerted Britain to the manufacture of V1 rockets. Preparations for the little-known Operation Raspberry, which was to have been an attack on Russian oilfields supplying Germany, were also displayed.
A variety of skills were used to interpret the clues which intelligence photographs provided. The shadows from grass and weeds growing uncut under barbed wire emplacements enabled these to be easily identified. The waves behind boats enabled their speed to be estimated. “Dentology” (the scrapes and bumps accumulated by working vessels) meant that individual enemy craft could be recognised. Knowledge of cargo design meant that crates on Russian ships heading for Cuba were identified as containing missiles.
The Chicksands museum can be viewed by appointment.

Sept 11

Cinemas and Theatres of Dunstable and South Beds, by author and broadcaster Eddie Grabham

Magnascope, a wide-screen cinema system introduced over 20 years before CinemaScope, was a feature of the magnificent Alma Kinema in Luton when it opened in 1929.
The first film shown there was The Divine Lady, a story of Nelson and Lady Hamilton, which was screened in normal fashion until the scenes of admiral’s death at Trafalgar, when the curtains drew further aside for a more spectacular view of the sea battle.
Unfortunately, so few films were made in the Magnascope process that the Alma eventually removed the special projectors required.
The story was one of numerous anecdotes told by Eddie Grabham, author of the new book From Grand To Grove, to members of the Dunstable and District Local History Society last week..
Eddie found that many people in his audience had first-hand knowledge of his subject. One member, Douglas Darby, remembered queuing to see Al Jolson in The Singing Fool at Luton. Another told him that some members of the audience actually booed the teenage Julie Andrews when she sang in concert at the Alma. “Shame on Luton,” said Eddie.
Clues about the existence of one little-advertised cinema in Dunstable had been provided to Eddie by one of his work colleagues in Dunstable, the gentlemanly Fred Fowler, famous for his drawings and articles about the history of Dunstable’s Priory Church. Mr Fowler had remembered visiting the cinema, which encouraged Eddie to continue with his hunt (eventually successful) for proof of the building’s existence.

Oct 9

The story of BBC Three Counties Radio, by broadcaster Ian Pearce

VERSATILE broadcaster Ian Pearce, whose work for BBC Three Counties Radio includes covering Luton Town football games as well as producing Sunday’s multi-faith religious programmes, was the guest speaker at the October meeting of Dunstable and District Local History Society.
Luton Town’s short-lived cup run meant that the Hatters had an unexpected match at Gillingham on the night of Ian’s scheduled talk, so history society chairman John Buckledee was relieved and grateful when Ian nevertheless managed to turn up at Dunstable.
“You booked me first,” explained Ian.
He told the audience about the early days of BBC Radio Bedfordshire at Hastings Street, Luton, and how the station has developed its unrivalled talk-based coverage of local community affairs.
His broadcasts on Sundays have led him to travel with local sixth-formers to the concentration camps in Poland, conduct a walkabout interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu at St Albans, and take part in a pilgrimage with the Archdeacon of Bedford to the Holy Land where, with the minimum of technical backup, he presented a programme live from Jerusalem. This was successful despite his confession that “I’m not a technical person – all I do is break stuff!”
A compilation of his Sunday “Melting Pot” programmes have resulted in him being nominated for a national broadcasting award.
Many members of the history society audience proved to be enthusiastic and knowledgeable listeners of BBC Three Counties, and Ian was questioned on such diverse topics as “personality” presenters, serial phone callers and the rescheduling of the station’s Treasure Hunt programme.

Nov 13

Edmund Wingate, the mathematician of Harlington, by the Rev Stephen Williams

WHAT’S the connection between Harlington and the Apollo space missions?
ANSWER: The spacemen carried with them to the moon an old-fashioned slide rule as a back-up for calculations in case their computers failed. And the slide rule was invented by Edmund Wingate…of Harlington.
The connection was used to illustrate a talk to Dunstable and District Local History Society by the Rev Stephen Williams, Vicar of Harlington, who used a lavish series of photographs to help tell the story of the village’s most famous son.
But one picture was missing – that of Wingate himself. Apparently his portrait was never painted, which perhaps is the reason why no statues have ever been erected to commemorate one of England’s most influential men.
Wingate, said to have been born at Sharpenhoe and christened at Streatley, was a member of a family which had been granted the substantial earnings from the Rectory of Luton by Queen Elizabeth I. His grandmother was Mary Belfield of Studham. Educated at Cambridge, he absorbed the ideas which had led to the new invention of logarithms and carried them to a job in Paris where he met the leading French mathematicians.
His fame there led to an appointment as language tutor to King Louis XIII’s sister, Henrietta Maria, who was destined to marry Charles, the future king of England. And he used his privileged position at the Louvre to organise the production of a straight-edged rule with a logarithm scale exactly engraved on it. When this was doubled up, the basis for a slide rule had been created.
Unfortunately, in all Wingate’s many arithmetical publications, he did not use the term “slide rule” which was coined by someone else. But the innovative idea, used to ease mathematical calculations for centuries afterwards, was his.
Wingate, married at Maulden, lived in Ampthill for six years before moving to Harlington. Despite his connections with King Charles I’s queen, he was a supporter and friend of Cromwell, and became one of England’s law-makers after the Civil War. He died in 1656.

Dec 11

John Smith of Flitwick demonstrates barrel organs which he has created

A man with a lifelong fascination for mechanical musical instruments gave a melodious talk to Dunstable and District Local History Society last week.
John Smith, of Flitwick, spoke about early barrel organs and other tuneful devices, demonstrating their complexities with machines he has made himself and playing music ranging from Christmas carols to Elgar.
Mr Smith, clearly proud to have been described as a man "who can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear", uses everyday materials for his creations. He showed his audience a simple wooden box which produces tunes from pipes made of balsa wood, operated by air passing through a narrow reel of pierced wallpaper.
Mr Smith has revealed some of his methods on a website (www.buskerorgan.com) and has been agreeably surprised by the number of people who contact him to buy blueprints and instructions.

2006  
Feb 14

The Walled Garden at Luton Hoo by Oonagh Kennedy

EFFORTS being made to restore the walled garden and conservatories at Luton Hoo were described by the project manager, Oonagh Kennedy, at the monthly meeting of Dunstable and District Local History Society.
The sheltered garden covers some six acres at the Hoo and was used to provide the owners of the mansion with a huge variety of exotic fruit, flowers and vegetables, many of which have been identified from plant labels recently discovered at the site.
The giant glass houses there were heated by coke-fired boilers which were tended night and day – the furnaces were replenished every four hours throughout the year. The output in Edwardian times was enormous (in one year, for instance, 8,000 pots of strawberries were produced) so guests at the Hoo could be entertained on a lavish scale. They would be given golden scissors so they could harvest their own selection of fruit, and the mansion would be decorated with impressive displays of orchids, carnations and chrysanthemums. These would feature only one variety of bloom – it was considered a bourgeois taste to have mixed arrangements.
At one party, the hostess hired a group of dwarfs who were dressed in green and hid among the plants to surprise visitors.
The glass houses are still standing and although they are dilapidated they can be restored. The Phillips family, which still owns that part of the Hoo estate on which the walled garden stands, has initiated a project to bring it back to its former glory and create a local attraction for visitors. The mansion itself and its surrounding grounds have been sold for conversion into a hotel.

March 14

Dunstable as seen through the Dunstable Gazette by John Buckledee

Photographs of railways in Dunstable were included in a talk by John Buckledee, former editor of the News-Gazette, who revealed some of the background to the popular Yesteryear series in the paper.
Mr Buckledee ruefully admitted being old enough to remember travelling on the Skimpot Flyer and to have been present when some of the Yesteryear photos were taken!
He recalled, for instance, being show round The Lawn, the Gothic house which once stood on what is now the site of the Argos store in High Street North, Dunstable. A memorable feature of the house were the fireplaces in some of the rooms which were situated underneath the windows. Thanks to the design of the chimneys, which curled around the window frames, it was possible to sit in front of the fire and look at the view at the same time.
Yesteryear had once featured the famous Dunstable model maker and artist Edwin Aldous, who had the extraordinary ability to draw upside-down pictures. This fascinated film-makers – there was even a cinema feature starring comedian Richard Hearn (Mr Pastry) who stood on his head while watching Mr Aldous at work.
Mr Buckledee wondered what had happened to Mr Aldous’s matchstick models of local scenes and the answer was provided by Mr Aldous’s daughter, Barbara Cole, who was in the audience. Some of the models were given to an organisation in Luton, where they were stored in a damp garage and eventually disintegrated.

April 11

The Great Northern Railway by George Howe

TRAIN enthusiasts were fascinated by a talk about the Great Northern Railway by former signalman George Howe at the April meeting of the Dunstable and District Local History Society.
Mr Howe showed maps tracing the development of the line and included photographs of the railway from Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable which once joined the GNR line at Welwyn Garden City after passing through the woodlands around Luton Hoo and Ayot.
Railway buffs afterwards revealed that traces of the old turntable at Dunstable North station could still be seen behind the present district council offices off High Street North.
And society chairman Hugh Garrod showed members an old bell which once hung outside the station in Church Street, Dunstable. People with prams or heavy luggage, who could not climb the steps from the road up to the station, would ring the bell to summon assistance from the station porter.
The bell was preserved after the station closed by John Williams, who was ticket clerk at Dunstable North, and it is now to be displayed at the heritage centre in Priory House, Dunstable.

May 09

Bedfordshire's Women's Land Army by Stuart Antrobus

A BRIEF newsreel clip of girls from the Bedfordshire Women’s Land Army parading before Princess Elizabeth at the end of the war has just been discovered by Stuart Antrobus, who is researching the local history of the Army.
He told members of the Dunstable and District Local History Society at their monthly meeting that the newsreel had been made, extraordinarily enough, for showing in cinemas in Saudi Arabia!
Mr Antrobus is assembling material about the county Land Army for the Bedfordshire libraries website, and the newsreel will be added to the site (reached via www.bedfordshire.gov.uk) later this year.
The girls were recruited to work on farms to help grow more crops and prevent the country being starved into defeat during the Second World War. Prior to 1939 two-thirds of our food was imported and a German blockade of shipping was a serious threat.
Many of the girls, all unmarried, were housed in hostels and transported to the fields each day. Locally, there were hostels at Toddington Manor, Kensworth House and at Whipsnade, in the lane close to what was formerly the Chequers public house.
A member of the audience at Mr Antrobus’s talk revealed that one of the huts from the Whipsnade hostel was later brought to the Dunstablians rugby ground at Bull Pond Lane, Dunstable, where it served as the pavilion.
There was a training course at Luton Hoo’s Home Farm, where the girls, most of whom had grown up in towns, were taught horticulture and how to milk cows. One girl, famously, had been asked by a farmer to clean a cow ready for milking and was discovered washing its face!
Mr Antrobus showed numerous photographs, including Land Army girls threshing wheat at Toddington, Princess Elizabeth with Lt Col Part (of Houghton Regis) at Bedford, and an anniversary party at Kensworth House in which some of the audience recognised a very young Norman Willis, later a well-known local nurseryman.

Sept 12

A Village Childhood by Ken Burton

YOUNG Ken Burton was among the first on the scene after a flying bomb hit his village during the war.
His local paper photographed him and a friend holding the doodle-bug’s tail fin – and the picture has subsequently appeared in numerous museum collections and at least one local history book.
Ken included the story among reminiscences of his Pirton village childhood when he spoke to Dunstable and District Local History Society’s September meeting.
At a very young age he was taught the skills of ploughing, graduating from leading horses to driving a tractor. One tip: always leave a straight furrow across a field to act as a guideline in case of misty weather the next morning.
He proudly showed the audience photos of his first motor car, which took him and his wife to Saturday-night variety shows at the old Alma Theatre in Luton. One fault with the vehicle was its leaky radiator, but he learned that a cup of porridge added to the water just before setting off would sufficiently seal the leaks !
He described the weekly wash-day routine in the days before electricity. Water (collected from the village well) was heated by a fire under a copper, soda crystals were added as softeners and the magical “blue bag” applied before the dripping clothes were fed through a hand-turned mangle.
During hot weather the communal water well was used as a kind of refrigerator, with butter and milk lowered in pails into the cooler depths.
The family had a wireless powered by an accumulator battery. To save this from running down too quickly, listening was limited to such popular programmes as In Town Tonight and Itma.

Oct 10

The Story of Fireworks by John Culverhouse

A boyhood fascination with fireworks has grown into big business for Jon Culverhouse.
As a lad he used to ask his understanding mother to visit the chemist to buy him, say, three ounces of strontium nitrate so he could add red to his home-made rockets.
Later on, when he was working as a journalist for the Daily Mail, his expert eye took note of some particularly spectacular fireworks which were being imported from Germany. He arranged to sell these in the UK by mail order, and what began as a part-time money-earner has now grown into Fantastic Fireworks, which operates from a 16-acre base at Pepperstock, near Slip End.
Mr Culverhouse talked about his business, and the history of fireworks, to members of Dunstable and District Local History Society last week.
His firm, as well as selling fireworks, arranges spectacular displays for corporate functions and private parties. It hit the headlines worldwide last August when it simultaneously ignited 58,000 rockets over Plymouth Sound in an attempt to enter the Guinness Book of Records.
Spectacular videos of this and other displays illustrated just how much fireworks have progressed since the formula for gunpowder was discovered, probably (by accident) in China, where potassium nitrate occurs naturally and was originally used as a meat preservative.

   
  Dunstable and District Local History Society members have been entertained and informed by a host of talks and outings since the society was formed in 1991. Here is a list of society events compiled by the first editor of the newsletter, Omer Roucoux.
   
2005

The Golden Age of Radio: Janet Naylor

Flint Buildings in the Chilterns: James Moir

Worthington G. Smith (talk with slides): Barry Home

Priory House: Richard Walden & Vivienne Evans

The Evacuees during WWII: Gordon Abbott

Cabinet War Room & Churchill Museum , London

Halton House - Halton Camp Museum

Harvington Hall & The Worcester Porcelain Museum

‘The Way' West Street - Past. Present & Future: John Thurston

Secret Czechoslovak Military Intelligence Station at Hockliffe, 1942-45: NeilRees

Keep smiling through Luton at War: Elizabeth Adey

2004

Dunstable & Priory (drawings): Tony Woodhouse

Pub & Pulpit (Temperance movement): Elizabeth Adey

Film: Royal Houghton 1985

The Development of Dunstable College: David Room

Biggleswade

Aspley House - London

Colchester

The Shuttleworth Aircraft Collection: Ken Cox

History of Rothamstead Manor & Experimental Station: Elsbeth Bartlett

The Commer Story: Geoff Carvenhill

The History of Magic: Richard Stupple

2003

Roman Dunstable: Joan Schneider

Transport of Yesteryear: Jim Knight

"Plus ça change ...” a film from c. 1965

The story of Milton Keynes -the Story of a City: Michel Synnott

Chicksand Priory

Lamport Hall

Globe Theatre ( London )

Bedfordshire Privies & Loos: Denis Bidwell

Bedfordshire Wartime Defences: Steven Coleman

Dunstable Downs: Janet Munro

Stage Coach, London to York: Hugh Granger

2002

The Story of the Police Force: John Woolley

The Hat Trade (Trades evening): Vivienne Evans & Joan Curran

(Slides and photo exhibition by O. Roucoux)

Pictures from the Gazette - Old Dunstable: Chris Grabham & Fiona Morton

West Wycombe Park & the Dashwoods: Don Varney

Meet the Authors. Launch of five new books about Dunstable

Royal gunpowder mitt, Waltham Abbey

Newport Pagnell

Black Country Museum ( Dudley )

The History of the Globe Theatre: Ann Ward

Offley Place: Angela Hillyard

Secrets of Wartime Bedfordshire -.Norman Holding

2001

Mills, Milling and Ford End Mill: David Lindsey

Archaeology and the National Trust in Thames and Chiltems Area: Gary Marshall

The Bevin Boys: Ray Leafe

The History of St Albans Abbey: Jane Kelsall

Pictures from the Gazette: Chris Grabham

Gorhambury and St Albans

West Wycombe Church and Village

Woodstock and Blenheim Palace

My Life in Ruins: Tony Rook

Woburn Abbey: Maureen Hemming

1500 years of Watling Street through Dunstable: OmerRoucoux

2000

10,000 items, 3,000 feet & 20 TV Cameras: Susan Woodward

Dunstable Trades Evening: Dunstable Nurseries

The Changing face of Local Newspapers: John Buckledee

How Leighton Buzzard won the War: Viv Willis

Brick making in Bedfordshire: Alan Cox

The British School , Hitchin

Pilgrims Progress Trail

Trip to Peterborough & Fag Fen

Mineral Water Manufacture, locally & nationally: Richard Hogg

The History of Luton Airport : Eddie Papps

Update on the Manshead Archaeological Society: BarryHome

1999

The Southern Section of the Grand Union Canal: Susan Woodward

Dunstable Trades Evening: Cross Paperware

The Great Train Robbery: John Woolley

Frederick Thurston. Photographer: Elizabeth Adey

Weather forecasting: Martin Stubbs

Qlney: Cowper &. Newton Museum

Wrest Park

Scenic Tour of Northamptonshire

Whipsnade to Waterloo — lion to lion: Lucy Pendar

The Luton . Dunstable & Leighton Buzzard Railway: Steven Summerson

Tempsford Airfield in WW2: Bernard O'Connor

1998

A Victorian Chemist shop: Isabel Wilson

Dunstable Trades Evening: The Printing Industry: Bill Bierton

Ernest M. Pradier: Crystal Engraver: Nicholas Bagshawe

Toddington: Town Hall & Village Hall: Tony Walker

Publishing Local History Books and Hockliffe House: Paul Bowes

Little Gaddesden Church and Frithsden Vineyard

Hitchin Town and Museum,

Old Chemist Shop and Garden Tour of Suffolk , Lavenham, etc. Airships and the R 101: Group Capt. P.A.Gart

Dunstable Street Names: Richard Walden,

Cavaliers and Poets at Toddington, 1590-1660: Simon Houfe,

1997

Arthur England and his Buses: Graham Smith

Bagshawe's: the Firm and the Family: Nicholas Bagshawe

67 years of the London Gliding Club: Ted Hull

Country Trades and Crafts: Marian Nichols

The World of the Highwayman: Hugh Grainger

Redbourne Church and Redbournbury Mill

College Lake , Pitstone

The River Quse from Bedford onwards

Whipsnade Wild Animal Park: Graham Lucas

Narrow Boat Nostalgia: Susan Woodward

Markyate Miscellany: Richard Hogg

1996

The History of Ashridge: Philip Sadler

Cinema & Theatre History in Luton and Dunstable: Eddie Grabham

Dunstable, Massachusetts: Terry Oliver and Pat Reeves

Creating a Nature Reserve at College Lake . Pitstone: G. Atkins

The History of Dunstable 's Schools: John Lunn

Luton Hoo (June outing)

Selected places in North Bedfordshire (July outing)

Ashridge House (additional July outing)

Bletchley Park (August outing)

The Lower Reaches of the Ouse: Philip Lepper

Leigh ton Buzzard and its History: R.V. Willis

A W alk Around Dunstable: Vivienne Evans (slides by O. Roucoux)

 

1995

A Touch of the Past: Ken Cooper

Old Trades of Dunstable: Colin Bourne, Cliff Evans

The Historic Churches of Two Counties: Patrick Lepper

Medieval Dunstable: Joan Schneider

Pitstone Windmill and Ford End Watermill

Coach Tour of North Bedfordshire

An afternoon trip to Ashwell

The River Ouse from its Sources to Bedford: Philip Lepper

Luton Hoo: Bryan Milton

Of Shops and Markets and Whiting Works: Colin Bourne, Fred Moore,

Don Kemp, Joan Curran

 

1994

Roman Dunstable: Joan Schneider

19 th Century Census Returns - a workshop: Joan Curran & Barry Home

History of Luton & Dunstable Hospital: Margaret Currie

Straw Plaiting: Veronica Main

Evening visit to Elstow, the Moot Hall, the Church and the Cottages

Evening visit to the Swiss Garden, Old Warden

Afternoon trip to the Chiltern Open Air Museum

The Dunstable Mayoralty. Origins and History: Richard Walden

A Bird's Eye View of Bedfordshire: Stephen Coleman

Dagnall through the Years: Geoff Spencer

1993

The 1851 Dunstable Census: Barry Horne

Dunstable Items in the County Recrods Office: Chris Pickford

Heritage of Houghton Regis: Pat Lovering

The Parish Chest and its Records: Norman Holding

Putting Dunstable Gazette to Bed: John Buckledee

Outing to Chicksands Priory

Summer Evening at Stockwood Park Museum

Visit to Woburn Heritage Centre

The Work of a Church Architect: Pam Ward

The Story of Whipsnade Village: Isobel Randall

Luton Peace Celebrations of July 1919: Ken Cooper

1992

Building an Iron Age house: Barry Home

The Story of Totternhoe Quarries: Joan Curran

Dunstable Pageant film: Douglas Darby

Early Paintings of South Beds. Buildings: Alan Cirket

The Roman Watling Street in the Dunstable area: Omer Roucoux

The Final Years of the Dunstable Priory: John Lunn

Visit to Cockayne Hatley Church (June outing)

Visit to Pitstone Farm Musem (July owing)

Visit the Dunstable Almshouses (August outing)

Old Dunstable Inns and Their Guests: Vivienne Evans

100 Years of Eaton Bray in Pictures: Peter Mayne

English Heritage and its Work: Maxine Miller

Christmas Social with Doug Darby and his saxophone

1991

Starting Harlington Heritage Trust: Martin Lawrence

Preserving Dunstable Heritage: Richard Walden