Category Archives: landmarks


 War Memorial (Penguin, £20) is now out, and I’m excited by the number of people who have been contacting me to research their own local war memorials.  Some of them have asked for advice, so here are some tips for how to get started.
My publishers have asked me to make the obvious point.  A good way to begin would be to buy the book!  I’m sorry, but I would get into trouble if I didn’t say it… although in all seriousness I hope that the book will provide a template for what can be done.
After taking that important step, you’ll need to identify the individuals.  (I had to, at any rate: the Lydford war memorial only lists names and initials.  Other war memorials might help with regiments, or even, in the case of one Welsh war memorial I saw, addresses – but that was only to distinguish between the many different Joneses.)  You can usually make the identification through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  They list more or less everyone from the services who has died for his country since the First World War.  I say more or less: the roll for the First World War closed in, I think, 1921.  At Lydford, two individuals who died after this date were included on the memorial: this could be seen from the fact that their names were out of alphabetical order, J.Stephens and W.H.Daw coming after S.Voysey.
However, particularly since CWGC entries list the parishes that the men and women came from, it is usually straightforward.

After that, I should think the county record office would be the first port of call.  That would give background on the village (if that is your interest); there might be publications of local relevance, and the staff could tell you what else might be available locally.  I enjoyed looking through the register of Lydford school.

Local families may have a shoe box full of their great-uncle’s letters, diaries and medals, or an album of photographs.  Try writing a letter to the local paper to see if this puts you in touch with descendants.
For my book on the Lydford war memorial, I spend a long time spooling through microfiches of the local paper, The Tavistock Gazette.  It was a very laborious process although I found loads that was interesting, not necessarily because of a connection with the war memorial.  Every so often I would come across a reference to one of the names on the memorial — for example playing billiards or taking part in a church social.  There were also occasional obits, as well as an account of the war memorial being unveiled.  It was time-consuming but gave me a feel for both the period and the place, as well as all sorts of unexpected historical sidelights (for instance, an item from 1916 saying that cocaine was now illegal.  Before, it had not been.)

There are a couple of good websites for family history — i.e. and  I seem to remember that they give you a few months of trial period for free, although after that they charge.  However they have some indispensable records.  Ancestry in particular is linked to the National Archives at Kew, having digitised some of the records.  The census records are key.  They will help you place the men in the village.

In terms of researching their careers under arms, I would suggest going first to the National Archives at Kew.  Their catalogue is online.  You can look up the records of individual servicemen where they exist (some records were destroyed in the Blitz).  Soldiers were entitled to various medals, depending on when and where they fought; the medal cards which list who was due what are available online.  Silver war badges or medals were awarded to soldiers who were wounded.

If you go to Kew in person, the staff will explain what the different records mean. 
The next step is to find if the battalion war diary exists for the relevant battalion.  All battalions had to keep one but some of the records were destroyed along with the other records.  I was generally lucky with mine.  If the soldier wasn’t away from the battalion (e.g. through illness, which will be recorded on his papers) you can tell what he must have been doing on any particular day.  The deaths of officers are noted by name, other ranks are generally just given as numbers.  The quality of the war diaries varies but they make fascinating reading.

The Imperial War Museum and National Army Museums are invaluable.  The IWM in particular has a vast archive, of every conceivable kind of record – letters, diaries, official papers, photographs, voice recordings, film, memorabilia.  It is digitising some of those for the First World War in time for the centenary I believe. 

If you know when a soldier was with a battalion, you can find records from people who were, so to speak, standing beside him.  They might take the form of diaries or letters — sometimes quite brisk and businesslike, but others very vivid indeed.
Good luck.  I hope you will enjoy your project as much as I enjoyed mine.

In Parliament, there’s more talent in the Lords. Or so Lady Thatcher told me

Stop me if I’m boring you, but here is the second in my series of extracts from my book Inside House of Lords. It was published in 1998, on the eve of the last paroxysm of reform, and so in some respects has a nostalgic cast.  But I like the quotation from Lady Thatcher.

The best moment to see the Lords is at Question Time, which starts at
two thirty–five on every day that they sit.  Your first impression is
probably of the chamber itself: rich, solemn, encrusted with decoration,
dominated at one end by the blaze of gold which is the throne: on all
occasions except the State opening of Parliament, an empty seat.    Red
is the colour: it has been since the sixteenth century. 
Look a little more closely, and you will start to think that architecture is telling you something.  There are knights in the canopy above the throne,
knightly figures (in fact Magna Cart barons) along the walls between
the windows, frescoes (if you look for them) showing the Black Prince
and other chivalric heroes, all manner of heraldic devices in the
ceiling, if only distance and the bright lights necessary for the
television cameras would let you see them.   Valour is interwoven with
religion, since much of the ornament, with it angels and other carving,
might have come from a church.  A big fresco above the throne depicts
the Baptism of King Ethelbert by St Augustine.  As represented through
the decoration, this is an Upper House for saints and heroes. 
But then regard the peers, sitting on their leather benches in rows,
rather as though they were in a particularly well–appointed railway
carriage.  Unexpectedly, perhaps, every seat on the benches is taken.  In
the middle of the room, in front of the throne, reposes the rather lonely
figure of the Lord Chancellor, isolated both by his position on the
woolsack and the unusual circumstance of his wearing a long grey wig. (Remember, I wrote this before the Blair reforms outlawed the Lord Chancellor’s stockings.  In fact abolished the Lord Chancellor altogether.  He’s been replaced by the Lord Speaker.) There are three clerks, also in gowns and wigs: short wigs but of different styles, either soft and round like a powder puff or rolled into hard curls.  Around them peers who cannot fit onto the benches have lodged themselves on any available surface.  Some stand at the bar: so to speak, the altar rail that separates the holy of holies from the outside world.  Peers speak; ministers answer; most of the figures on the benches sit immobile as effigies.  But there is also a constant
current of movement, as the chief whip passes a note to one of the
clerks and a doorkeeper, immensely grand in his tail coat, white tie and
gilt chain –– far better turned out than any of the peers –– scans the
faces of those present to deliver a message.  At the end of each reply, a
handful of peers half rise to their feet, then subside again, deferring
with good–humoured, if sometimes over–elaborate, courtesy to the one¿
of their number upon whom it falls to ask the next question.  The
constant bustle suggests a station waiting room when the train is
about to move off.
Ignore all the movement, and even the questions, and run your eyes
along those robustly upholstered benches.  They present a remarkable
study in physiognomy.  The rich panelling, with its endlessly repeating
linenfold, could almost have been designed for the display of heads.
There are heads of all kinds: some familiar from political stardom and
media appearances, some unknown outside the chamber, some
intellectual, some etiolated, some fleshly, some shrunken, some
bearded with a profusion one had thought to have gone out of fashion
with the daguerreotype, some of an singularity so marked as to be
unbelievable at first sight.  The character and variety of these heads is
really one of the wonders of Britain.  They show individuality.  Often
they bear the impress of years, and are none the worse for it.  These
are not the septuagenarian baby faces that one sees, for example, in the
United States, from whose tanned surface all evidence of past
struggles has been erased; the physiognomy of Britain’s peers is, on the
whole, an essay in long experience.  Here we have what might be
described as a whole menagerie of facial types, from marmoset to
marsupial, from ox to osprey, from collie dog to camel.  There are peers
who are squirrels,  peers who are reptiles, peers who are tufted owls.
A menagerie or an aquarium: the gene pool from which they are fished
is, quite obviously, deep indeed. 
Some peers inherit their titles, some are appointed by the prime
minister of the day for life.  It is for god, rather than man, to say
whether this assembly possesses wisdom, but it certainly forms a
repository of specialist knowledge.  ‘There is more expertise per
square foot here than in any forum in the world,’ says the rabbinical
scholar Lord Jakobovits.  He finds that he must put more effort into
preparing a speech for the Lords than for a learned society.  Lady
Thatcher, who never seemed to have much time for the Lords when she
was Prime Minister, now says there is ‘better talent here, particularly
in the sciences, than in the House of Commons’.  The talent takes
various kinds, balancing knowledge of world of politics and men with
expertise in science, foreign affairs, agriculture, the arts, justice and
religion, which can in turn be broken down into a thousand specialisms
from pesticides to fine art auctioneering.
More on the wide-ranging expertise of the hereditary peers in my blog for the Daily Mail.  I see that Oxfam in Wallingford are offering a good deal on a second hand copy of the book if you’re interested.

Why is soccer called soccer? And wehre were football’s rules made?

The Royal Mail has a new series of pictorial stamps.  I’m so excited — not because I’m a stamp collector, but because the theme is Landmarks of Britain.  I published a book of that very title in 2005; I’m not claiming copyright but have still got a proprietary interest in the subject.  I’ve blogged about it for the Daily Mail Online.  But I can’t resist sharing a favourite landmark with anyone reading the blog here.  
This is the place:
Parker’s Piece, Cambridge.

And why is it a landmark?  Read on.

Victorian England was a place of rules.  Rules were certainly needed for the game of football, whose origins lay in the anarchy of the Middle Ages, when teams of any size kicked an inflated pig’s bladder into their opponents territory.  More recently, it had become popular at public schools.  But the tendency for each school to play a different version of the game led to difficulties when players met at university.  On Parker’s Piece – the open ground where football was played at  Cambridge – the confusion became too much for H. De Winton and J.C. Thring, two University footballers.  In 1848 they met with representatives from other schools, and after an interminable meeting drew up the first set of rules for association football.  Today, football is still played according to Cambridge Rules.
Football is still played according to Cambridge Rules although the original Rules were somewhat different from their present form.   It was permissible to catch the ball, shoulder barge opponents, and any member of the team could act as goalie, when occasion offered.  These rules were revised in 1863, at a meeting which took place in the Freemasons’ Tavern, Great Queen Street, near the Royal Opera House in London.  The Football Association was born.  Footballers who persisted in playing by different rules found that their game was now called rugby. 
For the time being, soccer retained some of its original gentlemanly overtones.  The very word ‘soccer’ derives from assoc + er (as in Association Football), following the public schoolboy’s delight in diminutives such as brekker for breakfast.  But a new era was dawning.  The first issue of Country Life, published in 1897, contained an article asking whether football should go professional.  In fact professionals had been tolerated by the Football Association since 1885.  The game  acquired a new following from fans who watched as well as played.  In the course of the next hundred years it would become the most popular ball game in the world. 
Incidentally, this was Parker’s Piece at the time of Queen Victoria’s Coronation.  Any chance they could recreate it for the Jubilee?