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The Plymouth Book of Days
By John Van der Kiste
The History PressCopyright © 2012 John Van der Kiste
All rights reserved.
1824: On 24 December 1823, the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, granted Plymouth Dock (which had overtaken Plymouth in terms of population) its own identity and allowed the residents to change its name – something they had been yearning for. Eight days later its new name, Devonport, was officially used for the first time. An official proclamation, carried from point to point in the town, was read repeatedly to cheering crowds. Later, a 124ft column, designed by John Foulston, was erected, including a pedestal intended for a statue of King George IV which was to be financed by £20 shares. But it was never built, as several subscribers failed to pay.
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1951: The Royal Parade had its first fatal accident when Mrs Kathleen May, of Laira, was knocked over by a bus; she died on her way to hospital.
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2007: Professor Roland Levinsky (63), vice-chancellor of the University of Plymouth since September 2002, was walking his dog in a field at Wembury during a storm, when overhead power cables came down. Paramedics were called but he was pronounced dead at the scene. A new arts building at the university, opened in September 2007, was named The Roland Levinsky Room in his honour.
1958: A woman shopping in the city centre told her husband that she had come out without her key. He told her what a good job it was that he never did such a thing. As they approached their house in Woodford, he fumbled in his pockets and realised that he had done likewise. He had to force the back door, and, only after getting inside, did he discover that he had left his key in the lock of the front door the whole time.
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1964: The pianist in an orchestra playing at a venue in the city complained to the management that he was cold, and said that he would like an electric fire. His request was refused with the simple words, 'Nonsense. Tell him to play faster.'
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1965: Senior Inspector Forward, of the RSPCA, revealed that a fully grown Muscovy duck had been handed in before Christmas and that he, his wife and 10-year-old daughter had looked after it at their home in Peverell. It was occasionally allowed to exercise in the back garden, but they kept it penned up most of the time. The family had also acquired a large white rabbit and a ferret from people who had found them straying over the festive season.
1725: Plymouth's first locally produced newspaper, The Plymouth Weekly Journal, or General Post, was published for the first time. It was printed, and perhaps edited as well, by Mr M.E. Kent, Southside Street, with a cover price of 1½d per issue. Despite its title, it was not really a local newspaper, as it did not cover events in the area but relied on reprinting material taken from London newspapers. The earliest edition still known to exist, No. 36, dated 5 September 1718, is in the British Library. A copy dated 12 March 1725 is held by Plymouth Proprietary Library, but there are no records as to when publication ceased.
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1860: The first issue of the Western Morning News, the city's longest-lasting newspaper, founded by William Saunders and Edward Spender (the first editor), was published. Politically it claimed to be independent, although it was considered more sympathetic to the Liberal cause in its early days. The offices were originally at New George Street, then moved from the city centre to purpose -built premises at Derriford in 1992. From February 1997 onwards the paper was published in tabloid format. The Derriford offices closed in 2010 and from April that year the paper was printed in Didcot, Oxfordshire.
1957: Occupants of buildings in Armada Way were annoyed on this particular morning when they looked out of the windows to see ladies distributing bread on the grassy areas in front of the shops and offices – encouraging pigeons, and other birds that came in large numbers, to feed. They complained that the latter were waiting on roofs and façades, leaving a terrible mess. When one irate manager spoke to a woman whom he caught in the act, and suggested that it would be preferable if she scattered the food further away from the buildings, she retorted that in her view the Corporation were neglecting their duties by not employing an official pigeon feeder.
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1982: A collection of about 1,000 library books, which had been withdrawn from stock, were destroyed in a fire at the Stoke branch library, Albert Road. The blaze was believed to have been started deliberately by children lighting a bonfire. The books were being kept in storage in an air-raid shelter at the back of the library, until a rise in the pulping price made it more viable to dispose of them. Appealing for witnesses, the police particularly asked for help in tracing three youths seen running away from the scene.
1945: A wedding reception was held at a café in the city centre. Despite wartime restrictions and rationing, no effort had been spared by the bride's family in making a magnificent two-tiered cake, coated in icing and marzipan. It had been taken to the café the day before, and, after the guests arrived from the church, a waitress brought it out and placed it in front of them. The bride duly cut it, handed slices round, and everyone pronounced it quite delicious. After the guests had gone, more taxis arrived at the door and a second wedding party came in. Casting an eye over the neatly laid table, the bride noticed something missing. 'Where's our cake?' she asked.
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1973: In the afternoon a Christmas party was held for about 500 children, aged between 5 and 8, of employees at Tecalemit Engineering in the company's canteen. Among the attractions were star exhibits from Plymouth Zoo, namely Donna, a lion cub; Corky, a sulphur-crested cockatoo, and Charlie, a capuchin monkey. Also on hand to provide fun were Gordon Straight's puppets, and three members of the workforce dressed as clowns and entertainers. A 'Tom and Jerry' cartoon was shown, and Father Christmas gave each child a present.
1843: At a monthly meeting of Plymouth Proprietary Library, the committee passed a resolution regretting the inconvenience 'experienced in consequence of the detention of newspapers for a longer time than is compatible with the general accommodation'. They proposed that in the future 'two glasses of fifteen minutes each be provided and gentlemen be limited in the perusal of a paper to that time in case it is required by another member'.
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1888: Three young women were charged with 'extraordinary behaviour in the workhouse'. On New Year's Eve, they had climbed over the garden wall and run into the town, and, when brought back by the authorities, 'revenged themselves at the supper table by seizing pannikins [small metal cups] and smashing panes of glass'. They were sentenced to three months in prison.
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1954: A man with a splinter in his finger went to see his doctor to have it removed. The practitioner told him it was a case for hospital treatment. The man thought it hardly worth waiting in a queue for two or three hours for something so trivial, so instead he tried a chemist in the city centre, where the splinter was taken out within two minutes.
1949: A bus was boarded at Hyde Park by a couple who wanted to go to Peverell. The conductor helpfully told them that they needed a bus going in the opposite direction, as they were heading for the city centre. They would only reach Peverell after stopping first at Royal Parade, Fore Street, Devonport and Milehouse.
'But that's what we want,' they said. 'We're visitors and we're out sightseeing.'
'There's nothing to see in this place,' the conductor insisted.
His views were backed by a passenger, who told them, 'If you come here once, you'll never want to come again.' The couple must have wondered why they had bothered to visit Plymouth in the first place.
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1953: During a spate of burglaries in the city, one lady returned to her house for something she had forgotten. While she was in her bedroom, she heard someone moving around on the ground floor. She carefully crept down the stairs and, as she reached the bottom, the door of her sitting room opened and she found herself face-to-face with a strange man. 'Good evening,' she said, too surprised to come out with anything else. He wished her the same, opened the front door and left. Only then did she discover that he had taken £8 in cash with him.
1788: Plymouth had an unofficial royal visit from the eldest sons of King George III – the Prince of Wales, later George IV, and Frederick, Duke of York – who had come to cheer up their brother William Henry, the future William IV, who was then only a junior officer in the Royal Navy. He was in the town in parental disgrace, having disobeyed orders to spend winter in Québec (he had sailed to Cork instead). He was ordered to the south-west port and was told to stay there until instructed otherwise. The three princes drove in a coach-and-six along Fore Street, with cheering crowds lining their route. After visits to the Citadel, dockyard and Mount Edgcumbe, they attended a grand ball at the Long Assembly Rooms, Stonehouse, where they got drunk and 'were still lustily performing country dances' until after 1 a.m. (See May 23rd)
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1954: 'I want a bow tie, please,' a customer asked in a clothing store. 'Yes, sir,' answered the female assistant, 'Long or short sleeves?'
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1965: It was reported that an elderly lady, in bed at a hospital in the city, used to remove her hearing-aid at night, but always kept her glasses on. When asked why by another patient, she replied, 'Well, I get some very vivid dreams, and I can see them better if I keep my glasses on!'
1841: A court-martial was held on board the HMS San Joseph, moored off Hamoaze. George Hobbs, of HMS Pigeon, was charged with being drunk and disorderly, repeated drunkenness, insubordination and disobedience to orders, and with striking his superior officer – the master of Pigeon. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to be hanged from the yardarm of one of the ships off Hamoaze.
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1948: After increasing problems with souvenir hunters removing ashtrays, the NAAFI Club found a solution. New ashtrays of pink and green marble, weighing over 2lb each, were introduced to deter those of a light-fingered persuasion.
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1961: A passer-by scolded three small boys for throwing knives at the door of an old church on the Barbican. They assured her that it was 'all right', as it was an old building 'and will have to be knocked down soon'.
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1975: Efford Youth Centre, Blandford Road, was offered an old snooker table as a gift, but it was in a hut 500 yards away, and weighed 11/2 tons. Leader Vivian Parker had the problem of moving it, preferably free of charge, to its new home. An appeal for ideas and volunteers produced the perfect solution – members of the centre's weightlifting club.
1929: Tony Soper, one of Plymouth's most famous naturalists and presenters, and sometimes regarded as Britain's 'Mr Birdwatch', was born. Educated at Hyde Park Elementary School and Devonport High School for Boys, he joined the BBC as a trainee studio manager. He helped to found the BBC Natural History Unit and became its first wildlife cameraman and film producer, as well as presenting several natural history documentary series on television. He was the president of the Devon Bird Watching & Preservation Society in 1969 and 1970, and wrote several books on British and overseas birds, including the international bestseller The Bird Table Book, which was first published in 1965 and has been frequently reprinted since.
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1956: A gentleman was walking towards Mutley Plain when he met another man, who was rather short of breath, leaning against the wall. 'I wonder if you would mind helping me up the hill?' the breathless man asked. 'It's a bit of a climb for me at my age.' The other man was happy to lend a helping hand.
'Thanks very much,' the old man said afterwards, 'I find this hill very trying nowadays. You see, I'm 72.'
'Oh that's all right,' replied his benefactor, 'I'm only 74.'
1886: Ella Fitzroy (20), of Devonport, died from the effects of injuries received while she was changing for a ball on Christmas Eve. A lighted candle had fallen on her dress and caught fire. Her sister Maude (19) had heard her screams and gone to her rescue, but was severely burned herself, and, after lingering in agony, she died from her burns on the evening of Christmas Day.
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1948: A 12-month-old bullock owned by Mr Pudner of Highland Farm, near Roborough, had climbed a bank to drink from a static water tank in a nearby field. In the process it fell in, and the sides of the tank were too high for it to scramble out again. Pudner was informed by a neighbour who had seen it getting progressively panic-stricken. He, his son, and some farm workers were unable to move it while the tank was full. After knocking a hole in the side to drain the water out, they tried to coax, push and pull the increasingly frightened animal out, but without success. They fetched ropes, tackle and a hoisting pulley, wrapped sacks round it and placed a loop of rope over it so they could haul it clear and swing it back to safety.
1957: A woman standing in the queue at the Gaumont Cinema, waiting to see the Norman Wisdom picture, Up in the World, found herself in conversation with a group of four boys, all aged under 13. Every one of them had a television at home, and they had all been given 1s 6d by their mothers to see the film in the best seats, but none of them had had any dinner. All, the woman reflected, were 'latch-key children', with their parents apparently putting entertainment before proper meals.
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1973: Several members of the Hare Krishna sect in New George Street – dressed in Indian costume and covered with anoraks to keep the rain and cold at bay – were moved along by police. They were told that they were street traders and were causing an obstruction, as they were offering literature to passers-by and requesting donations to cover printing costs. There were five in the group altogether, with one tapping a drum and the others ringing small bells. They had come to Plymouth from Bloomsbury on the previous Sunday, 7 January, and were staying with a friend at Plymstock. Two of them had come from Plymouth originally, and they had adopted names such as Diaranga and Dhira Shanta.
1953: A show at Plymouth Arts Centre, 'Turn of the Century', included among its exhibits an object that had been dismissed as nothing more than an old black box covered in dust. Walton Gale, who brought it to the show, said it had been found by a friend when turning out a garden shed on behalf of an elderly widow, whose husband had died in 1920. He had examined it, realised it was an old camera, and noticed a manufacturer's plate with 'Ross of London' on it. He had sent it to them, and they had returned it with a note confirming that it was a model they made in 1901. The plates were removed and taken to a local chemist, who produced prints of remarkable clarity in view of their age – one showing a family group and another a typical Victorian parlour.
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1956: St Mary's Church, Plympton, organised a 'talents scheme' by which participants had to start off with a small sum to use as capital, which would enable them to raise funds throughout the year. One lady in the congregation, who always took her husband a cup of tea in the morning, decided that in future she would charge him 1s per week in aid of the fund.
2010: Casper, a 12-year-old black and white cat, who became world-famous as a bus commuter, was killed by a driver while crossing the road for his daily journey on the No. 3 First Devon & Cornwall service. His owner, Susan Finden, had acquired him as a rescue cat in 2002 and thought he must have begun life at a haulage yard because of his fondness for large vehicles. She named him Casper, after the friendly ghost. For about five years, he would get on at a bus stop outside the front door of his home in St Budeaux at around 10 a.m. every morning. He'd curl up on a seat throughout the full 11-mile route to the city centre, travelling for up to an hour before arriving back at the same stop. Mrs Finden was puzzled when he began to disappear regularly but was amazed when she found out he had become a regular passenger. Drivers on the service were advised to look out for him and ensure he got off at the right point. During the five years or so, he travelled an estimated 20,000 miles on the bus before his nine lives ran out. After worldwide media coverage of his life and death, Mrs Finden published his story in Casper the Commuting Cat later that year.
1898: Yealmpton station, the terminus of the Yealmpton to Plymouth Railway branch line, was opened by the Countess of Morley. It carried passengers and freight, but with the increase in car ownership after the First World War, passenger traffic was reduced and ceased on the line altogether in 1930. The services were restored in 1941 during the Second World War, as Yealmpton was one of the outlying villages being used as a dormitory town by people in the city during the worst of the air raids. In 1947, the line was again used for freight only until its closure in 1960. The station was demolished and the site was used for housing.
Excerpted from The Plymouth Book of Days by John Van der Kiste. Copyright © 2012 John Van der Kiste. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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