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Archive for the ‘20th Century’ Category

Review: M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, by Henry Hemming.

51egqtRjPEL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Maxwell Knight was a pioneer of 20th century espionage and counter-espionage who referred to himself as M; his section was known as M, and all his agents were designated M/1, M/2 and so on. Although it is not known whether he knew the Bond author, it seems most likely though currently unprovable that Ian Fleming’s character was named after him. The author addresses this in his final chapter, but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other: the “real” M’s story is remarkable in its own right.

Born in south London in 1900, Knight spent part of World War One in the navy reserve. He was first recruited as an agent – having been identified as a good candidate at an anti-Soviet right-wing rally – in 1923. He was initially tasked to infiltrate the British Fascisti, modelled on its Italian counterpart but at this time a very different creature from the Mosley organisation a decade later. With no training whatsoever, he took to the task like a duck to water, rising quickly in the organisation. An explanation for this might be that being right-wing himself, Knight was at home in this environment: there was little pretending to do. He became close friends with – among others – William Joyce, aka “Lord Haw-haw”. It is suggested, but not proved, that Knight may tipped off Joyce as World War Two loomed, allowing the traitor successfully to skip to Germany (the author injects an interesting point on the Friend v Country debate per EM Forster which had some currency at this time). This, however, was his only concession to the past, by this time having come a committed espionage boss against the Nazis.

This is the story of how initially, during the interwar years, Maxwell Knight built his own group of agents who committed domestic espionage against strongly pro-Soviet left-wing groups. He nurtured them, encouraged them, comforted them in their almost endlessly dull existences: being an agent is a stressful and lonely business. In particular, he proved what valuable spies women could be, running completely counter to the MI5 orthodoxy at the time. He used at least six of them, largely to great effect. But the whole organisation was yet tiny, and the author makes the point that in the Soviet v British espionage stakes it was like Manchester United versus Corinthian amateurs, even back then. Apart from the audacious kidnapping of a left-wing agitator on a Liverpool-bound train, most of the action throughout this book takes place in London.

All changed in the late 1930s when it was demonstrated without doubt that agent provocateurs in countries like Czechoslovakia proved great enablers in aid of Nazi invasion and that Britain potentially had no shortage of these too (as we know). M section under Knight turned to countering fifth column pro-German activity. His suggested solutions, including widespread internment, were severe indeed though ignored for some long time by the Home Office.

Among many, no doubt, we are told of a number of amazing missions: the capture of the Woolwich Arsenal spy ring in 1938 (they had been sending ordnance designs to Germany);  the unmasking of Tyler Kent, the spy within the US Embassy in 1940 which owing to America’s nominal neutrality and the implications of diplomatic immunity a) had to be handled most carefully and b) was referred to the very top of both governments’ relevant departments. All these missions were undertaken with a combination of patience, commonsense and unease. They are described with crackling suspense and in great detail.

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But what sort of man was M? You would argue that the job description demands that he must have been a bit of a strange one: unusual. And indeed he was. Maxwell Knight was an outsider. Though clearly good with people and a kind friend on a personal level, despite being twice married he lived largely alone, if we exclude the menagerie of wild animals he kept in his flat (perhaps these are two sides of the same coin). Despite belonging to many London clubs, he was not what they call “clubbable”. He was a big fan of jazz music and keen clarinettist. Both his marriages were almost certainly unconsummated, the problem lying on his side. With no evidence that he was bi- or homosexual, the author suggests he simply may have lacked the penchant.

Knight adored animals, particularly wild ones, many of which he kept at home, as mentioned. One of the most amazing things about this MI5 spymaster it that in the early 1960s he became known to millions of his fellow Britons as a radio and television presenter of various nature and environmental programmes, very much a proto-David Attenborough. Proper you-couldn’t-make-it-up territory.

This is a beautifully balanced biography of a complicated and interesting man. The derring-do and intrigue are wonderfully researched and described: fabulous true stories. But where the book really scores is the effort taken by the author to understand Maxwell Knight the man and through that prism explain how that shaped him and the things he did. Highly recommended.


M: MI5’s Greatest Spymaster (400pp, hardback) is published by Penguin Random House with a cover price of £20, but available at time of writing for substantially less if you’re quick!

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A guest post by Joe Gingell.

In May 1940 the British Government ordered the evacuation of women, children, the elderly and infirm to French Morocco to convert Gibraltar into a fully-fledged fortress, which Hitler was planning to capture.

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Commodore Creighton. National Portrait Gallery.

Soon after the arrival of the evacuees in French Morocco, France fell. As a result of this and the destruction of the French Fleet at Oran, the Gibraltar evacuees were ordered to leave French Morocco within 24 hours. Coinciding with the expulsion of the Gibraltar evacuees, 15,000 French troops were arriving at Casablanca on British cargo ships from the UK. The French authorities threatened to impound these ships unless they took away the Gibraltarian evacuees. Commodore Creighton (later Rear-Admiral Sir Kenelm Creighton) pleaded for the cleaning and replenishment of the ships but the request was refused and evacuees were forced on board by French troops.

The British Government did not want the evacuees to return to Gibraltar. Nonetheless, Commodore Creighton ignored the instructions from the Admiralty and sailed to Gibraltar with all the evacuees. But on arrival these evacuees were not allowed to disembark. Again Commodore Creighton insisted that the ships had to be cleaned and replenished. By then both the Italian and Vichy French air forces were bombing Gibraltar. Eventually alterations were made to the holds of the ships sailing into the Atlantic, with no medical facilities with hardly any life-saving equipment. After six days all provisions were inedible. Babies were born and some elderly people died in the journey. To avoid the menace of German U-boats, the convoy had to circumnavigate the Atlantic taking 16 days to reach England, specifically London.

Commodore Creighton in his book Convoy Commodore said that “if the convoy with Gibraltar evacuees had been attacked, it could have resulted in one of the worst disasters in maritime history.”

The evacuees arrived in London in August 1940, shortly before the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. About 13,000 of them lived in the capital during the war enduring all four years of bombing with some inevitable casualties.

I was one of those children evacuated to London. By 1944 I was already six and have vivid memories of the bombing of our evacuation centre, the Whitelands College in Putney. While in central London, I still remember my mother, my two brothers and I lying on the floor of the room at the York Hotel as a result of the explosion from a flying bomb which killed a Gibraltar evacuee. By end of July 1944 half of the evacuees had been repatriated. The remaining half were to live for four years in camps in Northern Ireland to await their gradual return home. Many of these evacuees had to wait for as long as ten years from the beginning of the war to rejoining their families in Gibraltar.

During the war Gibraltar became extremely vital, particularly, during Operation Torch. Some historians have qualified Gibraltar’s importance to the extent that, without Gibraltar, Britain would have lost the war. In the fortress scenario there was no place for non-combatant civilians who co-operated fully with a forced evacuation. Very little seems to be known about the story of the Gibraltar evacuees in London.


If you wish to read the book and find out the full story you can download it from the Gibraltar National Archives.

 

Evacuees at Dr Barnardo's

Evacuees at Dr. Barnardo’s.

EVACUEES AT WEMBLEY

Evacuees at Wembley.

EVACUEES AT WHITLANDS COLLEGE

Evacuees at Whitland College.

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alexander_kerenskybWe all remember Kerensky from school, don’t we? He was the sandwich filler between Russia’s ancient Tsarist monarchy – overthrown early in 1917 – and the victory of the Bolsheviks in the so-called October Revolution (which occurred in early November). Alexander Kerensky (1881 – 1970), a lawyer by trade, was no less a revolutionary than Lenin et al but he differed – cruically – in his commitment to continued hostilities against Germany.

But when Russian soldiers deserted in their millions, the Kerensky regime collapsed and he went into exile early in 1918.

Remarkably, Kerensky outlived all his contemporaries by many decades, eventually dying in 1970. He had spent the intervening years mostly in France and the USA, where he was popular on the lecture circuit.

But even more bizarre than his longevity is that he came to be interred in Putney Vale Cemetery. For various reasons, the Russian Orthodox and Serbian Orthodox churches in New York refused to give Kerensky a funeral, so his remains wound up in Putney Vale – a non-denominational cemetery in south-west London.

Marking the centenary of the Russian revolution, a few of us visited Kerensky yesterday. His final resting place is modest.

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by Dr Helen Szamuely

This article was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of April 2015.

The cavalier way in which TfL seems to have treated the Paolozzi mosaics in Tottenham Court Road station until someone noticed and called them to account is indicative of the low esteem that art form is held by many in this country. The spectacular mosaic floors in the National Gallery’s main entrance that combine traditional skill with modern themes are rarely glanced at by the many thousands of visitors who walk on them. On two of the mosaics, Cricket in The Pleasures of Life sequence in the East Vestibule and Exploring in The Labours of Life opposite it, the National Gallery has placed a large urn each, thus making it impossible to see them and drawing attention away from the work.

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Passing unnoticed. Anrep underfoot at the National Gallery, London.

In 2004 the National Gallery did publish a booklet by Lois Oliver, entitled Boris Anrep – The National Gallery Mosaics but that is now hard to find. Yet the spectacular work that should be seen by every visitor who happens to go in the main entrance is little known and its creator, the Russian artist Boris Anrep (1883 – 1969) even less so, though he is responsible for a number of other mosaics in London.

There is the Blake room in the Tate Gallery, the entrance to the Bank of England, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in Westminster Cathedral and a number of works in the Greek Orthodox Saint Sophia Cathedral in Moscow Road, Bayswater. There is also a mosaic in the Notre Dame de France church in Leicester Place but that, curiously enough, was covered up by a screen decorated by Jean Cocteau four years after its creation.

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A phoenix in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, Westminster Cathedral.

Boris Anrep, who came from a Swedish-Lithuanian-Russian family, was born in 1883 in St Petersburg. His father was an eminent professor of forensic medicine and, later, a deputy in the Third Duma. His two sons were called after the first Russian saints, Boris and Gleb with the latter becoming a well known physiologist, a professor at Cambridge and in Cairo. Boris attended a school in Kharkov (now Kharkiv in Ukraine) and spent a year in Great Missenden in 1899 to learn English. He was intended for the law and became a student at the prestigious School of Jurisprudence at St Petersburg but around 1908 decided that the life of the poet and artist was preferable. By this stage he had become acquainted with a number of artists in Russia and decided to study in the West in Paris, at the Académie Julian, where he made friends with Henry Lamb and Augustus John, who introduced him to the rest of Bloomsbury Group. This connection became very important in Anrep’s social and artistic life. In 1910 – 11 Anrep and his wife Yuniya lived in Edinburgh where he continued to study art and began to complicate his life maritally and sexually.

In 1911 Helen Maitland, a close friend of Dorelia John and an ex-girlfriend of Henry Lamb became his mistress and the three of them lived mostly in Paris. Helen was to be the mother Anrep’s children, Anastasia and Igor, but did not marry Boris till 1918 when he finally divorced Yuniya. By this time he had acquired another mistress, Maroussia Volkova, his sister-in-law’s sister, and the domestic triangle repeated itself, this time in England. Astonishingly, it was not in Bloomsbury but in Hampstead that the Anrep menage settled but in 1926 Helen left Boris for Roger Fry and the former, after displaying rather strong signs of jealousy, departed for Paris with Maroussia and acquired another mistress, the artist Jeanne Beynal.

Anrep was responsible for the Russian section in the 1912 Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition but had, by then, decided that his interest lay in mosaics, particularly in bringing together the more traditional ideas and forms with more modern contents. In 1914 he created mosaics for the Crypt in Westminster Cathedral but his work was interrupted by the First World War during which he served with the Russian Imperial Guard in Galicia and had an affair with the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

He returned to England in 1917 to be Military Secretary to the Russian Government Committee, went back once more in the autumn and left Russia for good as the Bolsheviks came to power.

In the next few years he created mosaics for private homes, mostly those of his friends and a few other clients. He started his habit of including portraits of people he knew into those mosaics, merging traditional patterns with ideas of the jazz age. In 1923 he was commissioned (his friend Maynard Keynes was helpful in getting him work) to create the floor of the Blake Room in the Tate Gallery and he used it to illustrate The Proverbs of Hell from The Marriage of Heaven of Hell. Although he now lived and worked in Paris, his major works were for England (and Scotland though, as a Russian, he might not have considered the difference important).

In 1927 he began the mosaics for the Bank of England, a huge labour that was interrupted by the Second World War and was not completed fully till 1946. In 1928 he created mosaics for the Greek Orthodox Church in Bayswater and the first of the floors for the National Gallery, The Labours of Life in the West Vestibule. Though the idea is a traditional one, the images are idiosyncratic and of the period. It is a pity Exploring, in which a zebra is being filmed, is now obscured by that urn. Science is once again relevant as it depicts a student looking at the diplodocus carnegii at the Natural History Museum.

The following year Anrep decorated the East Vestibule with The Pleasures of Life, an imaginative and non-judgemental view of various jolly events. Critics noted the presence of girls in short skirts and with bobbed hair.

The third floor, on the Half-Way Landing (all three were paid for almost entirely by Samuel Courtauld) was finished in 1933 and consists of a The Awakening of the Muses, with Apollo, Bacchus and eight of the Nine Muses represented by recognisable people, mostly from among Anrep’s friends in the Bloomsbury Group. He also added Greta Garbo as Melpomene (Muse of Tragedy) and an imaginary woman as Calliope (Muse of Heroic Poetry).

Boris and Maroussia escaped from Paris in 1940 and for the rest of the war they lived in Hampstead (with Boris, inevitably, starting another liaison with Maud Russell who was to pay for the last floor in the National Gallery) and he, apart from working on his mosaics, also transcribed Russian broadcasts. After the war he went back to Paris where he lived till 1965 with Maroussia dying in 1956. His last years were spent in Hyde Park Gardens with Maud Russell.

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Modern Virtues, featuring Churchill. National Gallery, London.

Anrep continued to work until almost his death and, unlike many other mosaicists, he created his own work, choosing the materials, making the designs, laying down the mosaics. In 1952 he finished the last of the National Gallery floors in the North Vestibule, The Modern Virtues, which includes people he knew in England and in Russia as well as public figures. Here we can find Margot Fonteyn, Loretta Young, Anna Akhmatova, Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell, T. S. Eliot and others representing slightly unexpected virtues as well as a picture of a Christmas Pudding and of the artist’s last resting place.

There were private commissions but the last great work, completed when Anrep was nearly eighty, was the very fine Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in Westminster Cathedral which went back in style to the pre-Byzantine Roman mosaics, with little gold and far from the expected monumental sightless figures. They are full of colour, light and rhythm – another union between traditional and modern in subject and pattern.

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Snapshot of Boris Anrep, 1920, by Bloomsbury hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Boris Anrep died in 1969. He had been a huge, in every sense of the word, figure on the English artistic scene, a man loved and admired by various friends and pupils. A keen tennis player who competed in the men’s doubles at Wimbledon in 1920, an excellent cook, a generous host and guest, one who could stand up to Augustus John in fisticuffs and who, quite astonishingly, excited the love of Lytton Strachey (One wonders what Boris made of that). He also left a mark in the history of public art of this country, which makes it rather sad that so little attention is paid to him. The only biography is by Annabel Farjeon (another writing Farjeon) who had married his son Igor. The manuscript is in the possession of the Anrep descendants but has never been published in English. It was translated into Russian and published in St Petersburg in 2003. Perhaps, it is time for a British publisher to have a look at it.

 


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A selection of Boris Anrep mosaics in our Flickr gallery. 

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by Dr Helen Szamuely

Alexander_Konstantinovich_Benckendorff225Ten men are buried in the Crypt of Westminster Cathedral, which can be visited by special permission: nine cardinals and one “civilian” the last Imperial Russian Ambassador, Count Alexander Konstantinovich Benckendorff (1849 – 1917), who had taken up his ambassadorial position in 1902 and held it to his death. As it happens he was the great nephew of the Countess, later Princess Lieven, wife of the nineteenth century Russian ambassador, whose own diplomatic activity is generally better known than her husband’s. Count Alexander was, unusually for a Russian official even of Baltic background, a Roman Catholic, having been brought up by his German mother Princess Louise de Croy. Through his own and his wife’s eminent Russian family the Shuvalovs, he was related to most of the Russian and a good part of European aristocracy. On the one hand this made life and career relatively smooth, on the other hand, it became a tragedy as public opinion hardened just before the First World War and during it. To take one example, the German ambassador to London in the summer of 1914, Prince Lichnowsky, the son of Countess Marie de Croy, was Benckendorff’s first cousin. The drive towards the war and Lichnowsky’s enforced departure (as a matter of fact, he opposed German policy) was a personal tragedy for these two men.

Benckendorff remains a divisive figure in Russian historiography, just as he was a divisive figure in his lifetime. He has been accused on not knowing any Russian, which is not true, and of being more anxious to promote the British point of view in Russia than the Russian in Britain, which has some basis in truth. His first languages were French and German but he did speak Russian and wrote to his children in that language. Diplomatic correspondence across the Russian corps was, in any case, conducted in French.

Having grown up in Europe, he was anxious to become a Russian landowner and acquired an estate in Sosnovka, spending every summer there with his family until 1914. His sons were sent to Russia to finish their education. The younger, Petr, joined the army fought in the Russo-Japanese war, re-enlisted in 1914 and was killed in 1915. The older, Constantine, went into the navy and survived not only the First World War but the Revolution, civil war and a stint in the Red Navy. In 1922 he married the harpist Maria Korchinska and in 1923 they came to England. As he said in his memoirs, Half a Life, they could not have known that they would never see their homeland again. Their sister, married Jasper Nicholas Ridley. Both marriages produced fairly eminent offspring.

Count Benckendorff was obsessed with the need for an Anglo-Russian Agreement and pursued this policy (backed by the French ambassador to London, Paul Cambon, often beyond his instructions from the Imperisal government. His friendship with the Empress Maria Fyodorovna gave him a special entrée to the British court and allowed him to communicate directly with King Edward VII, something that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs found frustrating as they felt that Benckendorff was ready to accept any British policy whether it was directly good for Russia or not.

The need for that agreement, in his view, was based on three main reasons: he feared Russia falling under German domination, he thought that only an Anglo-Russian agreement would stabilize the situation and keep peace between the two countries in Asia and Europe and, he hoped that it would promote liberal, Western ideas in Russia. One can argue whether the Anglo-Russian Accord of 1907, Count Benckendorff’s cherished plan for which he worked so hard contributed to the move towards the First World War or not but that is where Europe ended up much to his discontent. Not only were his hopes dashed but, to a great extent, the war was a personal tragedy for him, his family, his entire circle.

By the end of 1916 the news coming out of Russia disturbed Count Benckendorff even more. The war was becoming vrey unpopular, there were disturbances, revolutionary activity, shortages. Would Russia be able to continue fighting? Would she collapse under pressure? These questions clouded his last weeks. An early victim of the Spanish influenza that was to devastate Europe and the world, Count Alexander Benckendorff died in early 1917 and caused a diplomatic furore after his death. He had worshipped in Westminster Cathedral and had requested that he should be buried there. His reuqest was reinforced by the Tsar, Nicholas II, but rejected by the Cathedral, who pointed out that only cardinals are buried in the Cathedral’s crypt. The Count’s Requiem in the Cathedral was attended by member of both Royal families but the question of the burial was finally solved by Kind Edward Vii intervening with Cardinal Bourne. He pointed out that Russia, Britain’s staunch ally was having many difficulties and needed support. An agreement to bury Count Benckendorff in the Cathedral crypt would be such support; permission was granted.

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Final resting place: the crypt beneath Westminster Cathedral.

Nathalie Ridley, the Count’s daughter, commissioned Eric Gill to carve a memorial slab,which was installed in 1939 and can still be seen. In simple elegant writing it says in English and Latin, the latter provided by Mgr Ronald Knox:

 

Count Alexander Philip Constantine Ludovic Benckendorff,
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotenitary
from the Emperor of Russia to the Court of St James.
August 1 1849 – January 11 1917.
May he rest in peace.

The new Russian government has an ambivalent attitude to the country’s history, both Imperial and Soviet. Nevertheless, the Russian Embassy now holds a Diplomats’ Day on February 10 and wreaths are laid on the graves of all ambassadors and chargés d’affaires who happen to be buried in Britain. A ceremony in Westminster Cathedral crypt ends with red, white and blue flowers decorating the gravestone of Count Alexander Konstantinovich Benckendorff, last Imperial Russian Amanssador and the only non-cardinal buried in the crypt of Westminster Cathedral.


This article was published in London Historians Members’ newsletter April 2017, less than two days before the author passed away in Charing Cross Hospital on 5 April. We shall publish other articles by Dr Szamuely about London-based Russians during the coming weeks. 

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Review: Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason, by Gary Powell.

death diaryThis less-than-cheerful and macabre title actually belies the light reading which exists between its covers. I say this, because there are 365 stories of between half to a page each. So the reading is easy and can be done in any order without losing any narrative thread. You may be on the train, bus stop, about to switch off the bedside lamp. Whatever: light reading. I love books like this.

The content, as described in the title, comprises one death-related story (mostly murders) for every single day of the year going way back in London’s history.

There are the high profile cases, as you would expect. The execution of Charles I at the Banqueting House; the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher at the Libyan Embassy; the murder by a down-on-his-luck rival of actor William Terriss outside the Adelphi Theatre; the Krays.

But for me it’s the more mundane, everyday tragedies which resonate. The landlady strangled and stabbed by her lodger; the heartbreaking story of a man who killed his own toddlers because he literally could not afford to feed his family – in a book where hangings abound, at least this tortured soul went to an asylum.

A great deal of these accounts fall between the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries. It is noticeable that the motive is so often tied to money – or the lack of it. Grinding poverty, money worries – they existed on a level that we would find difficult to comprehend today. The ultimate state sanction was not sufficient deterrent, clearly. The gallows at Wandsworth, Pentonville and elsewhere were kept rather busy, even to relatively recent times.

There are many stories of a man killing his wife or lover in a domestic, or very occasionally the other way around. As I say, on the face of it, mundane. So the danger is these accounts becoming a bit samey. In Death Diary, author Gary Powell – a retired Met officer of decades standing – skillfully avoids this with matter-of-fact narratives which are never boring and yet neither are they ever sensationalised. It’s a difficult one to explain, perhaps the policeman’s knack of succinctly delivering detail.

An excellent third London book from this author. It includes a short bibliography and “index of offenders” at the end and there’s a generous section of illustrations and photos in the middle. Recommended.


Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason (288pp) by Gary Powell is published in paperback by Amberley with a cover price of £14.99. An author-signed copy was featured as London Historians monthly book prize for February 2017.

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I live a matter of a few hundred yards from the major trunk road in question, so when I spotted this in a shop in Kew last week, I had to have it.

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It’s a print commemorating the opening of the Great West Road in 1925 by George V and Queen Mary (who’d be a monarch, eh?). Made of tissue and folded like a paper napkin, it would have been dished out to the local crowds, or perhaps sold for a penny or two. It’s in really good condition, a remarkable survival.

The text badly spills over into the border decoration. This tells us, I think, that the souvenir printers made large stocks of coloured templates and then customised them for different occasions by overprinting text etc in black.

“The new Great West Road which has just been completed at a cost of £1,000,000 , will be opened by the King, accompanied by the Queen to-day. 

This new arterial road, which is eight miles in length, has for the greater part a width of 120ft. It extends from the Chiswick High-road near Kew Bridge, by-passes Brentford and enables traffic to avoid the congestion bottle-neck in the town.

The road continues through Isleworth and meets the main road again at the Bath Road, just beyond the Hounslow Barracks Station, then crosses the main road and passing through Hatton Village, joins the main Staines Road at Bedfont.” 

The building of the Great West Road was essential. Historically, the route to Bath and the west ran through Brentford. There was bad enough congestion during the days of horse-drawn vehicles, but once cars, buses, lorries and especially trams hit the streets, the narrow high street became all but impassable.

It didn’t take long for large businesses to realise the potential that the new thoroughfare offered. Beautiful industrial art deco buildings sprang up, giving us Brentford’s “Golden Mile”.

LH Member James Marshall wrote a book about this back in 1995. It’s out-of-print now, so available copies are very pricy. They are easily borrowed from local libraries however.

 

 

 

 

 

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