Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Shepley Spitfire


August 1940, and the Battle of Britain was entering its second month.

Among the pilots of 152 (Hyderabad) Squadron, defending the south coast - including the vitally important Portland naval base - was 22-year-old Douglas Shepley of Holmesfield, Derbyshire, who had married his fiancée only weeks before.

Douglas had already been credited with shooting down two German Me 109s, on 8th and 11th of August, when on the 12th 152 Squadron was sent to engage a German unit which had just bombed a radar station on the Isle of Wight. Unfortunately, two Spitfires never returned from the fray: P9456, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Withall, and Douglas’s K9999, both believed to have been shot down somewhere near the Needles.

For Douglas’s family this was the third devastating loss in less than a year. His sister Jeanne, a nurse in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, had been killed in October 1939 when the liner on which she was returning to England was sunk by a U boat near Gibraltar. Then, in May 1940, his elder brother, George Rex Shepley was shot down while dropping supplies to a garrison in Calais (for which he was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross).

In the face of this latest tragedy Douglas’s mother, Emily, and his widow, Frances, decided to commemorate Douglas and all he meant to them by buying a Spitfire for the RAF in his name.

The idea of military vehicles and weapons being gifted to the Forces was not new. During the First World War the government had encouraged people to donate money towards the purchase of tanks, ambulances, guns and other equipment, a strategy which had proved very successful and attracted funds from around the world. Indeed, 152 Squadron itself was named after the Nizam of Hyderabad, whose donation was big enough to buy a fleet of DH9As.  (The then Indian Territories provided many such ‘gift squadrons’, their origins being reflected in their names and in the design of their badges; 152’s badge depicted the Nizam’s head-dress and the words ‘Faithful ally’.)

Having proved so successful earlier, the ‘gifting’ campaign was revived during the Second War, in particular by Lord Beaverbrook when he ran the newly created Ministry of Aircraft Production. A list drawn up by the Ministry costed a single-engine aircraft (usually a Spitfire but sometimes a Hurricane) at £5,700, rising to £20,000 for a twin- and £40,000 for a four-engined plane.

Having set their sights on a Spitfire, Emily and Frances set to work raising public awareness about Douglas, organising event after event – dances, tea parties, whist tournaments and jumble sales, installing collection boxes in theatres and pubs. The people of Derbyshire and neighbouring south Yorkshire somehow found money to help: Bolsover miners donated a percentage of their earnings to the fund and Sheffield ARP held collections at all their posts. In just 15 weeks the family had raised enough to buy the Shepley Spitfire.

The aircraft chosen was W3649, built by Vickers Armstrong in 1941. The name Shepley was painted in yellow below the cockpit. After its inauguration flight in August, a little over a year since Douglas’s death, it became part of 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron, before serving with 303 (Polish) Squadron and then 485 (New Zealand) Squadron.  There, Shepley was requisitioned by Group Captain Francis Beamish, who used it as his personal plane, flown by him alone. Beamish survived several engagements in the Shepley Spitfire, but finally went down in the English Channel during a battle with 40 enemy aircraft on 28th March 1942.

As you would expect Douglas Shepley is commemorated on the RAF Memorial at Runnymede, in honour of those with no known graves, but a reminder of his and his family’s courage stands closer to home. When the brewer Hardy’s & Hanson’s built a new pub in Totley, near Holmesfield, it ran a competition to decide a name. Seymour Shepley, Douglas’s only surviving brother, nominated ‘The Shepley Spitfire’, and the brewery agreed. Seymour pulled the first pint at the pub commemorating his remarkable family in the winter of 1979.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

It’s only words …


An old cookbook we were looking at recently included a reference to ‘boozy cheese’ – we liked the sound of it but were a bit put out to discover it was merely cheese made from a cow in a boozy, or stall. Still, every cloud has a silver lining, and while we were delving into lost Cheshire dialect we came across a few other words we’d like to make a comeback...
 

v billyminawky – a foolish person

v cater-cornered – bent out of shape

v dade – to guide a child who is learning to walk

v aunty-paunty – full of beans, spirited

v tickle-stomached – squeamish

v drabbly – wet weather with the rain drizzling continually

v fribblin – small, meagre

v huckermucker – disorder, in a mess

v ess-lurdin – someone (or something) that likes to get close to a fire

v bogfowdered – puzzled or in a jam

v naffle – to do a small, trivial job – nafflin about is to faff about doing little jobs that take a long time

v croodle  – to crouch down

v fleek – to bask in heat, either in the sun or in front of a fire

v cazzardly ­ – unsettled, changeable (usually of weather)

v skitterwitted – scatterbrained

v camperlash – swearing, bad language

v daffadaindilly – daffodil

v gawpsheet – an idiot, numbskull

v toddlish – tipsy, slightly drunk

v rattle-skull – a talkative person

v quizcuss – a interfering, inquisitive person

v izles – flecks of soot

v mozy – tough, juiceless (of fruit)

v dwindle-straw – a puny, feeble creature

v poweration – a large quantity of something

v tattarat – an unstable person who  goes from one thing to another
 

Any others gratefully received!



 
 
 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Some new additions


Mow Cop
Photo: Tony Grist
We were sent a collection of newspaper clippings from the 1920s and 30s this week – someone who didn’t want them but didn’t think they should be thrown away (quite right too!). They’re mostly photographs, captioned by hand in writing that puts us to shame. (We think the writer was twelve at the time, to make things worse.) The photos are from right round Europe, but of most interest to us were a 1925 photo of Mow Cop folly captioned ‘…long famous as a landmark which it is now proposed to demolish’ (thank goodness that didn’t go ahead – we knew there was a long-running dispute over the land in the 1920s but didn’t realise demolition was ever on the cards); and a later one of the not-so-lucky Hooton Hall near Chester being demolished to make way for new houses. The collection also includes a number of politicians, including Mrs Mercer, the ‘first Lady Mayor of Birkenhead’ (1924/5) – hard to imagine anyone wanting to keep a picture of a modern-day MP in their scrapbook.


We’ve also added more local documents to our collection. We have several letters written by John Sneyd of the Staffordshire landowning family (Ralph Sneyd went to court in the 1850s to claim Mow Cop belonged to him; in the end he had to share ownership with Randle Wilbraham), and also more legal documents from the Challinor archive, detailing wills, indentures, loans and court cases, mostly from the Leek area. (This seems to have been a massive archive – we know quite a few people who have items from it and we believe the William Salt Library also has a large collection.) We also have some letters written from Liverpool in the 1790s: addressed to ‘Mr Cooke, of the Upper Pool near Hereford’ and ‘Mrs Edwards in the marketplace, Westbury’, they give you an idea of the size of the population at the time!

Our favourite, though, is a loan agreement made in 1766 between two Macclesfield men: Humphrey Goodwin, twister and button dyer, and Edward Bennett, hatbandmaker. Humphrey borrowed seventy-two pounds off Edward, around £8,500 today, to be repaid along with thirty-six pounds’ interest. We’ve found Humphrey in the records –  he was born in 1742 and christened at King Edward Street Presbyterian chapel; he married Hannah and had at least four daughters. Edward is proving more elusive so we’ll have to dig a bit deeper for him. What we really want to know, though, is what Humphrey did with the money …




Bond between Humphrey Goodwin and Edward Bennett, 1766 
(click to enlarge)


Thursday, 30 January 2014

Ferry 'cross the Mersey?




This tranquil scene, of what could be a father and son fishing, was sketched near Seacombe, Wirral in September 1811 – completely unrecognisable as the busy ferry port of today.  
 
 
 
 

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Happy Christmas!


Season’s greetings to everyone who’s let us loose on their family tree this year – we’ve had a great time researching some really interesting characters (and unearthing a few things perhaps best left undiscovered!), and look forward to meeting more of you in 2014.
 

Here’s how you would have spent your Christmas had you booked into the Crichton Hotel in Blackpool in 1937; and an example of a hand-painted card, sent to Miss Hilda Pickering of Macclesfield in 1921. (Click on image to enlarge.)




Thursday, 21 November 2013

Messines revisited

The story of the model village of Messines, as reported in our September blog, generated lots of interest, with people wanting to know how the model was rediscovered, and how it was ever lost in the first place.

Well, it was found through the detective work of two local historians – Richard Pursehouse and Lee Dent, members of the Chase Project military history group – and involved a host of volunteers, several archaeological units, Staffordshire County Council and researchers from across the globe. Plus, of course, a dog.

In 1920 the process of winding down the military camps of Cannock Chase was well underway, with reusable materials being salvaged and anything of value sent for auction. Remarkably, the Messines model didn’t seem to be considered important by the authorities, and it was ignored but luckily not destroyed. With grass and tree roots starting to encroach over the following months, local Cubs and Scouts tried to clean the model up, but when the huts surrounding it were torn down, it was completely exposed to the elements and began to deteriorate.

The future of the model seemed a little brighter come the 1930s, when Ernest Groucott, an ex-Grenadier Guardsman, undertook some renovation work. As an army driver he had been active in the area during the war and had seen the model being constructed. By 1932 he was giving guided tours of the model for a small fee and a restoration fund had been set up.

But this memento of the First War could only decline further as Britain faced the Second, and while local children played on it in the 1940s and 50s, by the 1960s it had almost completely disappeared from view.

And so it remained until 2007, when Richard Pursehouse picked up what he thought was a stick to throw for his dog – and discovered it was in fact concrete.  Richard and Lee had been researching the model since discussing it on a trip to the Somme Battlefields the previous year, and had tried to find the site. However, seeing the overgrown condition of the area, with not a glimpse of the model to be seen, they had more or less decided (like the Council) that it had gone. But now, a little scraping revealed patches of concrete around the gorse bushes … how much of the model remained?

In December 2007 Staffordshire County Council commissioned Birmingham Archaeology to assess the area identified by the Chase Project.  With the help of Dolores Ho of the National Army Museum in New Zealand, Richard and Lee continued to research the model, establishing the existence of the viewing area on three sides and that it had been built ‘under instructions from Lieutenant Colonel J.G. Roache for the use of the Regimental School to instruct officers and NCOs in Topography’. The Chase Project was able to gather an extensive dataset of maps, photographs and diaries to help archaeologists in their task.

Finally, in 2013, a full excavation of the model took place, with the site being declared to be of international as well as national significance.  The model was freed of scrub and dirt and a laser scan carried out so that an exact 3D replica can be built.

Unfortunately, although largely made of concrete the model is actually very fragile, and it was decided that it had to be re-covered to protect it from the elements and damage from burrowing animals. It was therefore covered with a breathable membrane, followed by a layer of sand, rabbit-proof netting and finally specially selected soil.

In this way the Messines model has been made safe for future generations as they contemplate some of the most momentous events in British history.
 
 
The model under construction.
Photo courtesy of the  National Army Museum New Zealand
 
 
 
Detail of German strongpoint north-east of Messines.
Photo courtesy of the Chase Project
 




Site of the model cleared prior to excavation.
Photo courtesy of the Chase Project
 
 

 
Anyone with any information on the model can contact the Chase Project at thechaseproject@gmail.com. The group is now also researching the Staffordshire Tank Banks of the First World War.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Enigma: changing the course of history

This week we remember Colin Grazier and Francis Fasson, killed on the night of 30 October 1942 during a mission that turned out to be one of the most important of the Second World War.

By 1942 the biggest threat to the Allies was from U-Boats, which the Germans used in ‘wolf packs’ to attack shipping and disrupt supply convoys. Finding and destroying enemy submarines had become a top priority for British forces, with Churchill later commenting that the only thing that really frightened him during the war was the U-Boat peril. So when, on 30 October, a U-Boat was identified in the Mediterranean Sea, travelling westwards some 70 miles off the coast of Egypt, several destroyers were sent to hunt it down.
 

The U-Boat – later found to be the U-559 – was located by HMS Petard, which immediately launched an attack. It took almost 10 hours of fighting for the sub to be forced to the surface, but it eventually appeared in the destroyer’s search lights at around 10.40 pm. The crew were evacuated and placed under arrest, but not before they had scuttled the sub. Knowing there could be important information inside, Petard’s Captain, Lt Commander Mark Thorton, asked for volunteers to search the damaged vessel.

Three men, who must by this time have been physically and mentally exhausted, accepted the risk: Lieutenant Francis Fasson of Jedburgh, Able Seaman Colin Grazier from Tamworth and, just 16 years of age, NAAFI canteen assistant Tommy Brown. Jumping naked into the freezing ocean, they swam to the stricken sub. Fasson and Grazier went inside to search for anything which might prove useful, managing to pass books and documents to Brown, who stayed on the conning tower. But the U-559 finally went under, and Fasson and Grazier were unable to escape in time.  

They had, however, changed the course of the war, because the books they passed to HMS Petard contained code keys to the now-famous German Enigma machine.

Enigma was used to encrypt Nazi messages and was so sophisticated that it was calculated the odds of breaking the code without a key were 150 million million million to one. It had been invented as a commercial device in 1923, but was picked up and refined by the German military, who believed its ciphers to be unbreakable. The Poles, with their knowledge of German engineering industry, had managed to re-create an Enigma machine as early as 1933, and had had some success in reading the Wehrmacht’s messages. But, come the Second World War, analysts were unable to break the stream of information sent by German forces on land, sea and air.

It took three weeks for the code books taken by HMS Petard to reach Bletchley Park, the secret base set up by the British government to intercept and crack enemy communications. But because of the books, analysts at Bletchley were finally able to break the codes used by the Germans to plan U-Boat attacks. The breakthrough occurred on 13 December 1942, and within an hour of the news being given to the submarine tracking unit the position of 15 U-Boats in the Atlantic had been revealed.

It has been said that the war was shorted by as much as two years because of the actions of Fasson, Grazier and Brown, with countless lives saved. Certainly the number of British vessels sunk in the months following the discovery was halved. However, with anything to do with Bletchley Park being subject to the Official Secrets Act, their heroism was not widely publicised and they did not get the recognition they so deserved.

Lieutenant Fasson and Colin Grazier were recommended for posthumous Victoria Crosses but, as they did not actually die ‘in the face of the enemy’, were instead awarded the George Cross. Tommy Brown was awarded the George Medal. Tragically, he was killed in a house fire in North Shields in 1945.

Today Tamworth has begun to acknowledge the debt owed to Colin Grazier and his comrades, and visitors to the town might find themselves on Grazier Avenue, Fasson Close, Brown Avenue, Bletchley Drive or Petard Close. A memorial to the men has also been built in Church Square, where a service is held on Colin Grazier Memorial Day.