Colin Brown Writer and Journalist
New Books






OPERATION BIG -The Race to Stop Hitler's A-Bomb


My latest book has made a big splash in the  newspapers including The Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror. It has also been featured on the PM Programme on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service "Witness" programme.

Operation Big - the race to stop Hitler's A-bomb is the amazing true story of how a small American unit in Jeeps and two armoured cars raced across southern  Germany in purusit of Hitler's top ten nuclear scientists. It was published in the UK in 2016 by Amberley Publishing. It will be published also in the United States. There has been interest in Hollywood in turning this true story into a film. Paperback version coming in November. I will be speaking in Huntingdon, close to where some of the action took place: Huntingdon Library at 2.30 pm on 3 November 2016.




GLORY AND BOLLOCKS

WH Smith Book of the Month, best-selling alternative take on ten key years in Britain's history.

Read one of the reviews on AMAZON.UK:  
This book has ten, fairly lengthy, chapters, each focussing on a particular event in history that has had a profound influence on the making of 'Britain'. They run from 1215 right up to today and it surprised me that I enjoyed the post 1900 chapters the most, probably because I know less about this period than earlier history.
What really staggered me is the Stygian depth of research evident on every page, leading to a richness in story telling beyond anything that I can recall having the pleasure of experiencing before. This tremendous texture extends beyond the issue itself to encompass the people and places around that issue and is so accurately guaged as to always remain relevant and fascinating. We are often told that the only way to engage today's youth in history is to bring it to life and ' make it real'. Well, this book is no dry and dusty history text book. In fact, it's hardly history at all as, in every chapter, for me it was happening now, in real time, and I was right there.

The BREXIT vote in 2016 spurred me to write a postscript. I travelled to some of the London boroughs that voted Leave and Sheffield, where I had worked in the 1970s. I went to the Shiregreen Working Men's Club, made famous as the place where they filmed The Full Monty, the story of a group of steelworkers who turn to stripping when their jobs go down the pan. My findings were surprising. This is a taster

THE PEASANTS’ REVOLT 2016

Britain’s vote to exit from the European Union on 23 June 2016 was a Peasants’ Revolt. Those who voted to Leave saw themselves as the Outsiders, ignored by political leaders for decades. They were the disinherited ones, despised by the metropolitan elites in London, with a list of genuine grievances just like those who had followed Wat Tyler.
The most arresting of the results, for me, was in Sheffield, the great northern city of steel, hard by the Pennine moors where I had lived in the 1970s, when all those Leave voters were born. I wondered why Sheffield had voted to Leave. It was a long time since I had been there. Perhaps, it was time I went back….

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT! TRY MY TAKE ON WHAT HAPPENED TO SOME OF THE ORDINARY MEN AND BOYS WHO FOUGHT AT WATERLOO AFTER THE BATTLE ENDED....INCLUDING THE MAN HOLDING THIS CAPTURED FRENCH COLOUR





THE SCUM OF THE EARTH - What happened to the real British heroes of Waterloo?

Dedicated to the ordinary men who rarely got a look-in when the history of Waterloo and its aftermath was written, Scum of the Earth tracks what happened to number of soldiers who history quietly forgot:

Corporal Francis Stiles of the Royal Dragoons, the man who captured the eagle portrayed on the front cover

John Lees, the young boy who drove a wagon for the guns at Waterloo, who was later killed at the Peterloo Massacre protesting for workers' rights

Sergeant James Graham, once hailed as the bravest man in the British Army for closing the gate at Hougoumont, who was reduced to poverty on a pension of 9d a day in his old age





The title was taken from a letter I found by the Duke of Wellington in the Wellington Archives at Southampton University. The Iron Duke was stating what he believed was the simple truth when he called his men "the scum of the earth": they joined the army to escape prison, poverty and sometimes the angry parents of girls they had got 'into trouble'. This is the story of the ordinary soldiers who fought at Waterloo, and how, when they returned from Waterloo, they found Britain at war with itself.
The gold eagle taken by Stiles today is on show at the National Army Museum, but Stiles has been written out of the official history. 




The credit for the capture of this eagle was claimed by his commanding officer Sir Alexander Kennedy Clark. Their lives could not have been more different after Waterloo - Kennedy Clark inherited a fortune, became laird of an estate in Scotland, and Queen Victoria's Aide-de-Camp, an honorary post held today by Prince William. Stiles died relatively young in a cholera outbreak in Clerkenwell, London, but I found documentary proof that he went to the grave still claiming he had captured the eagle!
Also let me introduce you to John Lees, 
a wagon driver with Bull's Howitzer troop at Waterloo. He was in the thick of the fighting, and survived the battle but was later killed protesting at St Peter's Field, Manchester, as part of a mass demonstration by ordinary workers for better pay and conditions, and some representation in Parliament. With Waterloo still fresh in people's minds, the killings that day became known as the Peterloo Massacre. Lees was officially listed as "sabred" - possibly by the very same cavalry whom he fought alongside at Waterloo  - but I have examined just how he died with a modern-day professor of pathology, and the result is surprising. His death made him a socialist icon, but surprisingly little was known about his life. I went to Oldham, his home town, to investigate


This taxi rank in central Manchester - behind the Radisson Hotel - is the site of the make-shift stage at the Peterloo Massacre where John Lees was beaten up by the police and the local militia for joining a protest meeting calling for the vote for ordinary people.


These are just a couple of the stories I have uncovered in sifting fact from myth in the battle for the "scum of the earth" to be given a say over their own lives.


This is an elm roughly where Wellington and his ADCs stood during the battle - the field is down to the left. The Lion Mound is in the background marking the spot where the Prince of Orange was hit in the shoulder. Seems a big monument for a small wound...but I reckon it was much more than that. It was intended as a crude two-fingered riposte to the "disloyal" Belgians who did not wish to remain under the rule of the House of Orange. It did not work. In 1830 - five years after the Lion Mound was finished - there were riots in Brussels and independence was declared.

My books have one unifying theme - the need to remove some of the spin attached to much of history. And there was plenty  of spin surrounding the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

As I expected the 2015 bicentary was used for a European jamboree to celebrate a truly "European" victory over Napoleon (more spin!). But at least it meant that the old farm of Hougoumont was rescued, though whether you approve of the bright orange roof tiles they have put on it, or the garish white paint they have used for the walls, I leave you to judge. I wrote about how shocked I was when I first visited it (Glory and B*llocks) and found it falling down.

I visited again with Labour MP Barry Sheerman who took up the case of Hougoumont in the Commons after reading my book. It must have had some effect - George Osborne, the Chancellor, contributed £1m of taxpayers' money to the Project Hougoumont restoration fund. 

Barry Sheerman MP at the North Gate of Hougoumont where the French died fighting to break in. Wellington said the closing of this gate turned the battle.




Fireloop in the wall at Hougoumont - this is the view that Sargeant Graham and other heroes of the siege would have had looking out at the French as they attacked in wave after wave....

Byron was one of the few in the elite group of aristocrats who spoke up in support of the common "scum" after the war, until he was forced into exile. He visited Waterloo in 1815 and collected souvenirs from the battlefield which I was kindly allowed to see at his publishers, John Murray in London.




Byron, Percy Shelley and Shelley's 'muse', Mary, sheltered from Wagnerian thunderstorms at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva in 1816 - "the year without a summer" - and Mary Shelley was inspired by the horrors of the storm to write a best seller...It was called the Modern Prometheus or Frankenstein.





 That's me holding a large piece of shot, known as cannister shot, because it was fired from a cannon in a cannister and spread like lethal shot gun pellets. It was collected by Byron at Waterloo and held at John Murrary for 200 years, who very kindly allowed me to hold one of Byron's balls!

Having read countless histories of the period, I thought there was little new to say about the battle or the events after it. But what I found in my investigations came as a total suprirse. I hope it captures the imagination of readers spurred on by the bicentary of Waterloo on 18 June, 2015!!!


The "Captive Eagle" by James Prinsep Beadle - it's not in any military museum as one would expect. It's in pride of place in the town hall at Great Yarmouth! Read more about it in "The Scum of the Earth". 

No-one could tell me how this heroic painting came to be in Great Yarmouth Town Hall. But when I went on BBC Radio Nofolk to chat about the book, I got an answer. A caller called Jim rang the programme to say the painting belonged to a retired colonel who was downsizing to a retirement house on the south coast and could not take the canvas with him because it was too big. He donated it to the Great Yarmouth borough council.

Years later, Jim worked at the council, and suggested that the painting was too important to be in the Town Hall and should be in the National Army Museum in London, where the golden eagle is on display or the Blues and Royals regimental mess. A brigadier from the Household Cavalry was very keen to accept the painting, if it was offered by council. Jim arranged for a proposal along these lines to be put to the council, but when it was discussed the idea of letting it go was rejected. That is why you have to go to Great Yarmouth town hall if you want to see one of the great paintings of the Battle of Waterloo!


AND DON'T MISS: Glory and B*llocks



Background to the book by Colin Brown

Our island story told through ten landmark years including 1215 Magna Carta, 1415 the Battle of Azincourt, 1588 the defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1940 the year Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany, and 1948 the birth of the NHS.



Hermann Goering, sixth from the right, commander of hte Luftwaffe sharing a joke with the German high command after the fall of France...as they looked at the White Cliffs of Dover, not knowing that in a few days Churchill would be on a secret observation platform looking back at occupied France.


Churchill surveying the French coast from "Hellfire Corner" on the White Cliffs above Dover.

Dover today - thousands of tourists pass by without knowing the tunnel in the middle at the top of the cliff was the secret bunker where Churchill surveyed France.

Glory and B*llocks - first published in hardback as Real Britannia -  is packed with surprises - Magna Carta is now seen as the foundation stone of our human rights...but nothing could be further from the truth; Azincourt was not won by the longbow...but by the mud; Elizabeth 1 delivered her ringing speech defying the Dons at a fort on the Essex bank of the Thames...but the Armada had been defeated TEN days before she sailed by barge to Tilbury; and Nye Bevan was at the birth of the NHS in 1948 ....but it was not exclusively a Labour baby - it was born out of the inspiration of Churchill's coalition Cabinet in the depths of war in 1941.

It is a travel book - it was the W H Smith book of the Month at all airports and major stations - with history at its roots. I travel to some surprising places: the fishing port of Brixham Devon, where I find the Orange Lodges still marching in support of William of Orange, who landed there in 1688; the battlefield at Waterloo near Brussels and find that the scene of amazing courage and sacrifice by the guards - Hougoumont Farm - is forlorn and at risk of falling down; and the Crypt at Westminster where Tony Benn was responsible for the most extraordinary political memorial in Britain - a plaque to the memory of the suffragette Emily Davison in a broom cupboard! It says she died after she 'threw herself under the king's horse' at the Epsom but I tell why I think this is incorrect.

It is available at bookshops and airports (W H Smith have a brilliant special airport edition) as well as Amazon.
Just search for Glory and B*llocks!



WHITEHALL - THE AUDIO VERSION!

 

Whitehall - The Street that Shaped a Nation is now available in audio format completely unabridged. There are 10 audio CDs in one box, playing time 12 hours 30 minutes...Read by the Vicar of Ambridge.

Read by John Telfer, an actor with loads of credits, including appearing at the Royal National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic. Numerous televison credits include Casualty, Without Motive and five years in Bergerac playing the detective's sidekick, DC Pettit. He is regularly heard on Radio 4 in drama, poetry reading and story reading. He also plays Alan Franks, Vicr of Ambridge, in The Archers

Available from AudioGO, customer services, St James House, the Square, Lower Bristol Road, Bath, BA2 3BH

www.audiogo.com

Copyright - COLIN BROWN 2010

In the midst of the events to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the Prime Minister David Cameron blundered. On a visit to the United States, he said Britain was a ‘junior partner’ to the United States in 1940. In fact, it was not until December, the following year that the attack on Pearl Harbour by Japan forced the United States to enter the war. Cameron was quickly reminded that in 1940, Britain stood alone against the might of Hitler’s Third Reich and faced the imminent threat of invasion after the retreat of the British Army from Dunkirk and the fall of France. And when he attempted to repair the damage, Cameron stumbled into another controversy. He said

 

‘1940, to me is the proudest year of British history bar none. We stood on our own against the Nazi tyranny. Let me put absolutely put that on the record. It is the proudest year in all of British history...’

 

(BBC Radio 4 Today programme 28 July, 2010).

 

An opinion poll showed he was reflecting a popular view, but everyone seemed to have an opinion about Britain’s Proudest Year, and there were many dissenting voices from those who believed the signing of Magna Carta limiting the powers of the King in 1215 was of greater significance to those who regarded 1966 when England last won the world cup as the year of which England, if not Britain, should be most proud. And it is a debate that is still going on: could 2012 – the year when, among other things, London hosts the Olympic Games and the Queen celebrates 60 years on the Throne - become Britain’s Proudest Year? This account will explode some of the myths, and rekindle controversy about some of this island's 'proudest' years.


1415 - THE YEAR OF AGINCOURT

 

 

 

It was cold and wet when I arrived in Azincourt on St Crispin’s Day, just as it had been for Henry and his army, almost 600 years before. The sun was milky grey behind darkening rain clouds lumbering slowly on a westerly wind over the trees. Water was lying in the ploughed fields among the shoots of winter wheat and mud oozed underfoot as it did when Henry V’s bedraggled army arrived here on a chill October 25th to do battle against an overwhelming French force, and won. It was a victory against all the odds that has spawned a multitude of myths, but should that make the year of the battle, 1415, stand out as one of the proudest in British history?

 

      Invaders from England today drive off the Dover ferry in their SUVs barely giving a second glance at the battlefield in the Pas de Calais as they head off to their holiday homes in Normandy or the Dordogne. Despite Shakespeare’s boast in Henry’s mouth that it would be remembered ‘to the ending of the world’, I doubt if any of my fellow passengers on the 90-minute ferry crossing to Calais knew it was the Feast Day of the patron saints of cobblers, St Crispin and St Crispinian, two brothers who were beheaded for their faith on or about October 25, 286 AD in Soissons, France on the orders of the Roman Emperor Maximian.  It was the first day of the Autumn half-term holidays and groups of kids roared about the passenger decks of the Pride of Kent like an English midget army intent on pillaging the sweet shops of France. Harassed parents had their minds on the hours ahead on French motorways as they stocked up in the ‘duty paid’ supermarket for the journey along the A26. Azincourt – to use the French spelling – is 78 kilometres from Calais. Instructed by a lady with a soft voice on my SatNav, I left the busy A26 after half an hour, and took the D-roads rolling south across undulating countryside through red brick villages, until  Fruges, a market town, where the market stalls had been replaced for the week by the dodgems of a fairground in the town square. The long pull up the hill on the south side of Fruges ends in a plateau of windmills. The modern wind farms in this part of the old coal-rich county of the Artois are everywhere, their windmills sprouting like white Triffids, with spinning propellers throwing their arms above the trees that line the sides of the roads in traditional French style. But they have been kept at bay from Azincourt. A wooden cut-out of a knight in armour by the roadside is the first sign that you are nearing an historic scene of battle among the hedgerows and the red tiled barns of this bucolic landscape. If Harry had joined the hordes and paid the £30 for the return day trip with a car today he would have found the battlefield at Azincourt remarkably little altered from when he arrived there six centuries earlier.

 

 

 

 

Henry had raised taxes and pawned the crown jewels to finance the enterprise with a vast fleet of up to 1,500 ships carrying nearly 12,000 men from England’s counties and the land of his birth, Wales. He was full of optimism and confident in the rightness of his claim on the French throne, then occupied by the intermittently mad-as-a-hare King Charles Vl who was suffering from what would be diagnosed today as schizophrenia. Charles, because of his mental instability, was unable to lead the French forces and never appeared at the battle of Azincourt, but there is a street named after him there, the Rue Charles V1 which contains the lively visitors’ centre, the Centre Historique Medieval at the heart of the modern rural village of Azincourt. It was created through the energies of the local mayor, a priest and a school master, with EU funding. It is unashamedly dedicated to preserving the memory of France’s most humiliating defeat by the English. It also plays up the mythological power of the longbow, now often referred to – erroneously - as the ‘medieval equivalent of the machine gun’. You get the message about the longbow even before you start the Agincourt tour. The modern entrance to the centre is supported by six wooden ribs designed to look like English longbows pulled back to fire a hail of arrows at the French. Having paid €7.50 and collected my ticket, I was ushered into a darkened room just as the Azincourt ‘show’ was starting.  A French family, father with a beard, a mother in jeans, and son about ten, watched mutely as the story unfolded about how, against all the odds, a force of 20,000 French got slaughtered by the archers of England. It began with an eerie night-time display of the opposing camps on the eve of battle. A mannequin of Henry V with a computer-animated face looking remarkably like Mick Jagger gave us a ‘little touch of Harry in the night’ from the dimly-lit entrance to his tent:

 

The confident and over-lusty French
Do the low-rated English play at dice;
And chide the cripple tardy-gaited night
Who, like a foul and ugly witch, doth limp
So tediously away. The poor condemned English,
Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires
Sit patiently and inly ruminate
The morning's danger, and their gesture sad
Investing lank-lean; cheeks and war-worn coats
Presenteth them unto the gazing moon
So many horrid ghosts.

 

Henry V Act 1V Prologue

 

A plan of the battlefield in the next room gave us a birds’ eye view of how the thin line of England held out against the massed ranks of the French. If French visitors were left in any doubt, the show finished with a short film explaining how the miraculous English victory of 1415 had fuelled ‘English nationalism’ across the Channel and had inspired successive English leaders to do great things. We saw iconic portraits flashed on the screen - Elizabeth 1, Oliver Cromwell and Sir Winston Churchill.The pantheon of great British leaders stopped short of Margaret Thatcher once described by the French president Francois Mitterand as having the ‘the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe’. Clearly the handbaggings in Europe from Lady Thatcher were too fresh in the memory. The doors opened on our darkened world, and the French family left looking downcast. Deep down, I had an urge to strike the air with a fist, and shout ‘Eng-a-land’. Henry V and his ‘posse’ were not very different from a horde of raging football hooligans, smashing up the French countryside, to show who was boss. But the spirit of entent cordiale is so strong in Azincourt today, I walked out of the darkened theatre into the October sunlight feeling a bit embarrassed, inclined to say sorry and apologise for the carnage. On the way out, I mentioned to the young girl behind the counter in the Azincourt gift shop that it was ‘a bit triumphalist, for the English I mean’.

 

‘We know…’ she said with a shrug and the hint of a smile.

 

TO BE CONTINUED......

 

 1588 - THE YEAR OF THE SPANISH ARMADA

I know I have ye body butt of a weak and feble woman, butt I have ye harte and stomack of a kinge,

 

Queen Elizabeth 1, Tilbury, 9 August 1588[1]

 

 

 

ON A hot summer’s day in August 1588, Elizabeth l boarded her royal barge near the royal Palace of Whitehall for Tilbury and prepared to deliver the most famous speech of her long reign. It was a speech of defiance against the Catholic King Philip 11 of Spain and the Armada he had sent to overthrow her, and would show that the Queen of England was every bit Henry V111’s daughter. It was courageous, spirited, and truly imperious, and it would echo down the centuries as the moment when England faced a foreign invader and won.

 

Elizabeth stepped on board her barge at the Whitehall Stairs, now the site of the Victoria Embankment gardens by the west side of Charing Cross station, in good spirits in spite of the peril she faced. Her small flotilla of royal barges with rowers beating time with their oars must have looked and sounded like a waterborne pageant rather than a Queen going to lead an army into battle. With pennants flying, and trumpets blaring, the Queen made a spectacle for Londoners with her martial procession down river to review her troops, accompanied by her ceremonial guards in full rig and pomp. The barges carried the Honourable Band of Gentlemen Pensioners, created by her father in 1509, resplendent in half-armour with plumed morions, and the Queen’s Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard, dressed like the so-called ‘Beefeaters’ at the Tower, in red-and-gold tunics, the oldest military corps in the world, who still guard the Queen today at the State Opening of Parliament. There were cheering spectators in the windows on London Bridge as her barge sped underneath on the ebb tide, and went by the Tower with its chilling memories for Elizabeth, of the green where her mother Anne Boleyn had been beheaded, and the Traitor’s Gate, where Elizabeth had arrived as a prisoner of her own Catholic half-sister, Mary. It took five hours to reach the little jetty at Tilbury Fort, and there she was met by the Earl of Leicester and his dashing, headstrong young stepson, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, black haired and handsome, who had been appointed the Queen’s Master of Horse the year before, made a Knight of the Garter and, although just 23, was also rumoured at Whitehall to have become Elizabeth’s lover. Leicester was ageing and ill, possibly with a cancer of the stomach which would kill him within a month[2], but the Earl gave her a tumultuous reception with flying banners, cheering from her troops, more trumpets and a salvo of guns. Sir John Norris, Leicester’s deputy at Tilbury, according to the Elizabethan populist writer Thomas Deloney displayed the ‘colors rent and torn, the which with bullets was so burned’ which he had brought back from Flanders were he and Leicester had recently served. [i]Leicester had stationed his forces all the way along a causeway, that led across the marshes from the ‘blockhouse’ at the fort, north to the ridge where he had established his military headquarters and a vast camp.  The Elizabethan writer James Aske, who was there, described the scene in detail in his epic poem Elizabetha Triumphans

 

On every side of that directest way
From Block-house where she should be set on land
Unto the outward quarter of the Campe,
There rancked were both armed men and shot,
With Captaines, who of them had taken charge,
To entertaine their sacred Generall.
The other Captaines with their companies,
Still resident were at their Corps du guard,
Where-as they ranked all their arm'd-men first:
Behinde them were the shot in severall ranks,
With equall distance twixt the placed rowes,
Which made a passing brave and war-like showe.
The Earle of Leicester with those Officers
Which chosen were to governe in the field,
At water-side within the Block-house stayd
In readinesse there to receive our Queene.
Who landed now, doth passe along her way,
She thence some-way still marching kinglike-on,
The Cannons at the Block-house were discharg'd:
The Drums do sound, the Phiphes do yeeld their notes,
And Ensignes are displayd through-out the Campe.
Our peerelesse Queene doth by her Souldiers passe,
And shewes her selfe unto her Subiects there:
She thanks them oft for their (of dutie) paines,
And they againe on knees do pray for her.

 



[1] All dates quoted are by the Old Style calendar. 19 August by the modern calendar introduced by Act of Parliament in 1750.

[2] Leicester died at his house in Oxfordshire on the 4th September, 1588. Elizabeth treasured the letter he had sent her days before his death, and wrote on it ‘His Last letter’. She kept it in a box until her own death in 1603. Leicester wrote: I most humbly beseech your Majesty to pardon your poor old servant to be thus bold in sending to know how my gracious lady doth, and what ease of her late pain she finds, being the chiefest thing in the world I do pray for, for her to have good health and long life. For my own poor case, I continue still your medicine and find that [it] amends much better than any other thing that hath been given me….Your Majesty's most faithful and obedient servant, R. Leicester. Even as I had writ thus much, I received Your Majesty's token by Young Tracey.

 

 

 

 



[i] Line 63, The Queen Intent to See Tilbury Camp, Thomas Deloney.

 

 

 

 Tilbury fort today

The ‘blockhouse’ at Tilberie forte had been built by Henry V111 in 1539 to repel an earlier seaborne threat by Charles V, the most powerful Catholic leader in Europe, as the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and nephew of Henry’s humiliated Catholic Queen, Katherine of Aragon. Gravesend Reach was an important, strategic point in the river, commanding the entrance to London from the sea. Here the river is only 800 yards wide – it had been used since before the Romans [i]as a ferry crossing point for travellers from Essex going to Kent, Canterbury and the port of Dover for France. Henry had built a second fort on the opposite bank at Gravesend, Kent, so that enemy ships attempting to sail up to London could be caught in a cross-fire from the two bastions on the north and south banks of the Thames.

 

 

 

Tilbury Fort today is dwarfed by the Tilbury container and liner port to the west and the Tilbury power station to the east. Huge freighters sail past, towering over the sturdy riverside fortifications which were modernised by Captain Charles Gordon – Gordon of Khartoum – in Queen Victoria’s reign.

 

 

 I followed in Elizabeth’s footsteps one cold October day with a biting wind blowing off the river, when just four couples visited the fort, but I looked in vain for some sign that this is where Elizabeth 1 landed to deliver one of the most enduring speeches in the English language.

 

 

The first thing you see when you approach Tilbury is a pair of chimneys standing against the skyline like a two fingered salute to the world. They are the smokestacks of the Tilbury coal-fired power generating station, one of the biggest in the south of England, supplying heating and light to a million people including the estates of semi-detached 1970s houses that cluster around Tilbury’s international container port. By the river is an old weather-boarded pub that looks like the setting for a Dickens novel, which is not entirely surprising – prison ‘hulks’, former warships, were moored at Tilbury in the 19th Century and it was on the mud flats on the nearby Kent banks of the river that Dickens set Magwitch’s escape for the opening of the Great Expectations. The pub is called the World’s End, and it lives up to its name. The fort has its back to the marshes, and the wind that whips off the river makes it wild and inhospitable even in summer, as those who monotonously guarded the battlements through the Napoleonic wars, the First World War, and the war against Hitler could no doubt testify. The stagnant marshland at Tilbury had a reputation for being unlovely as the backside of Tudor London even in the 16th Century. Tilbury is in the old Saxon district of Thurrock, a name which, according to the official website of the local council, was derived from the Saxon word for the bottom of a boat where the bilge water collects or ‘a dung heap in a field’. Defoe, who reputedly stayed in the thatched cottage, which still stands on the hill near Chadwell St Mary church, recorded, ‘the whole shore being low, and spread with marshes and unhealthy ground’. If she returned today, Elizabeth would recognise the wild marshland and the slight smell of drains. But finding any sign of Elizabeth there was tantalising....



[i] P127 Thames: Sacred River, Peter Ackroyd, Chatto and Windus.

 

 TO BE CONTINUED

 

 

 

 

 

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