On this day in history : 8th October 1908 – Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s book ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is published – and has never been out of print since….
Kenneth started work at the Bank of England in 1879 – from a junior position he worked his way up through the ranks, eventually to become Secretary of the Bank….
In 1899 he married Elspeth Thomson and they had one son, Alistair – a sickly child, born premature, blind in one eye and suffering ill-health all his life…. His parents gave him the affectionate nickname of ‘Mouse’….
When the boy was around 4-years-old his father began to tell him bedtime stories, about four animal friends – Toad, Badger, Ratty and Mole…. When Kenneth was away from home, (often on the boating holidays he enjoyed so much), he would write home to Alistair – his letters full of more tales of the four friends…. The child was quite a headstrong and wayward boy – and Kenneth based the character of Toad on him…. Ratty was based on a good friend of his – fellow writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch….
In 1908 Kenneth retired early from the Bank due to ill-health…. The family moved to Crookham in Berkshire – the area where Kenneth had spent much of his childhood…. In his retirement he spent much of his time by the banks of the River Thames…. Having decided to develop his tales of Toad, Badger, Ratty and Mole he no doubt drew much of his inspiration from the river….and giving us the children’s book ‘The Wind in the Willows’ that we all grew up with and loved so much….
Sadly Alistair, who was an under-graduate at Oxford University at the time, committed suicide on a railway track five days before his 20th birthday….
On this day in history : 15th June 1911 – Anglican cleric, railway enthusiast and children’s author – best known for his creation ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ – the Reverend W. Awdry is born….
Wilbert Vere Awdry was born at Ampfield Vicarage near to Romsey in Hampshire – his father was the Anglican Vicar of Ampfield…. The family moved to Box in Wiltshire and lived in a house, ‘Journey’s End’, which was just 200yds from Box Tunnel on the Great Western Railway…. Wilbert would lie in his bed at night and listen to the freight trains; he got to know their whistles and felt each engine had its own personality…. He heard them ‘snorting’ up the steep incline and listened for the conversations they held between themselves….
Wilbert was educated at Marlborough House in Kent, Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire and then attended Oxford…. Afterwards he was to teach for three years before becoming ordained into the Anglican Church…. He became curate for St. Nicholas’ Church, Kings Norton, Birmingham and then Rector at Elmsworth and Knapwell, Cambridgeshire…. After a term as Rural Dean at Bourn he became Vicar of Emneth in Norfolk…. He retired in 1965 and settled in Rodborough, near to Stroud, Gloucestershire….
It was when his son, Christopher, caught measles in 1943 that Wilbert began to make up stories about trains to keep the boy amused…. After he had written ‘The Three Railway Engines’, which was published in 1945, he built Christopher a model of ‘Edward’ out of a broomstick and some scraps of wood…. He also added some trucks and carriages….
Christopher was eager to have a model of ‘Gordon’ as well – but this proved difficult because of the size…. So, Wilbert built a smaller model….and ‘Thomas’ came to be…. Christopher wanted more stories about Thomas, which led to ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ being published in 1946…. By the time Wilbert had stopped writing in 1972 there were 26 books in the Railway series….Christopher went on to add to these books….
Wilbert remained a railway enthusiast; he volunteered as a guard on the Talyllyn Railway in Wales and was involved in railway preservation work…. He was awarded an OBE in 1996 but by now his health was failing and he was unable to make the journey to London to receive it personally…. He died peacefully in Stroud on the 21st of March 1997….
Thomas the Tank Engine will bring back memories for so many of us….either from our own childhoods or those of our children…. I, for one, have a son who was absolutely obsessed – we still have many of the books and somewhere in the loft is a huge collection of die-cast models…. In October 1984 a TV series was developed by Britt Allcroft – with the voice of Ringo Starr telling the stories…. Thomas videos seemed to play on a constant loop in our house…. Oh! And that wretched theme tune….I never have quite managed to get it out of my head!
On this day in history : 18th January 1882 – The birth of Alan Alexander Milne….who brought to us that loveable little bear Winnie the Pooh….
A.A. Milne was born in Kilburn, London and attended Westminster School and later Trinity College, Cambridge – graduating with a B.A. in mathematics….
Whilst at University he edited and wrote for a student magazine – and it wasn’t long before he came to the attention of British humour publication ‘Punch’…. A.A. Milne became a contributor to the magazine and went on to become its assistant editor….
In 1913, just before the First World War, Milne married Dorothy (Daphne) de Selincourt…. As war broke out he joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment as an officer – but his suffering of a debilitating illness meant a transfer to the Royal Corps of Signals…. After receiving an injury at the Battle of the Somme he was invalided back to England…. Once he had recovered he spent the remainder of the war in military intelligence, writing propaganda for MI7….
In August 1920 a son, Christopher Robin, was born to the Milnes….and in 1925 the family moved to a new country home – Cotchford Farm, Hartfield, East Sussex. The farm lay adjacent to the northern edge of Five Hundred Acre Wood in Ashdown Forest….which became Milne’s inspiration for his Hundred Acre Wood, the home of Winnie the Pooh and his friends….
Christopher Robin owned a teddy bear, purchased in Harrods of London – and given to him as a first birthday present in 1921…. Originally the bear was called ‘Edward’….but he underwent a name change…. The Milnes were frequent visitors to London Zoo – and it was there that Christopher Robin fell in love with a certain Canadian black bear – called Winnie….so named for her previous owner….who came from Winnipeg, Canada….
Canadian Lieutenant Harry Colebourn had bought the bear as a cub from a hunter for 20 dollars…. Lt. Colebourn was on route to England during WW1….and the bear cub became the unofficial mascot for the Fort Gary Horse Regiment – a Canadian Army Reserve armoured regiment….
It was whilst the regiment were away in France that Winnie came to be in London Zoo, as she was left there for safe-keeping. Once the war was over she was officially donated to the zoo and became a much-loved attraction….
The other part of Winnie the Pooh’s name came from a swan called Pooh that the Milnes encountered on a family holiday….
As we know Winnie the Pooh is usually shortened to just ‘Pooh’….and this might be the reason why….
“But his arms are so stiff….they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think – but I am not sure – that that is why he is always called Pooh”…
Pooh’s friends – Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger are all based on Christopher Robin’s other stuffed toy animals….Owl and Rabbit came from Milne’s imagination…. The original toys, Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and Kanga (unfortunately Roo got lost) can be seen at the New York Public Library – as they were gifted to them by American publisher E.P. Dutton in 1987…. They now receive over 750,000 visitors a year….
On this day in history : 14th January 1898 – the death of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – who under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll brought us ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and its sequel ‘Through the Looking-Glass’…
Charles was born on the 27th of January 1832, in Daresbury, Cheshire; the son of a parson, he came from a large family, being the third of eleven children…. The Dodgson family had their roots in Northern England but also had Irish connections….
Until the age of 12 Charles was educated at home; he was then sent to Richmond Grammar School and then on to Rugby…. In January 1851 he went into residency at Oxford University – where he was to remain in varying capacities all of his life…. A stained-glass window at Christ Church College can be seen that depicts a White Rabbit and Alice holding a flamingo….
Charles studied mathematics at Oxford – such was his talent that he won the Christ Church Mathematics Lectureship in 1855, which he held on to for 26 years….
Throughout his life Charles did not enjoy the best of health; he was deaf in one ear after a childhood fever – and whooping-cough had left him with a weak chest…. Later in life he suffered debilitating migraines….he also had a life-long stutter….
Although we always associate Lewis Carroll with ‘Alice in Wonderland’, which was published in 1865 and its sequel ‘Through the Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There’ in 1872 – there was so much more to the man. He wrote twelve works of literary fiction and a further eleven books on mathematics…. He was a poet, philosopher, satirist, inventor and photographer….
Charles had written short stories and poetry from an early age….and had successfully had some published in magazines and national publications…. It was in 1856 that he wrote for the first time under the pen name of ‘Lewis Carroll’ – a poem entitled ‘Solitude’…. The pseudonym came from the anglicised ‘Ludovicus’ (which in turn came from the Latin for ‘Lutwidge’) to give ‘Lewis’ – whereas ‘Carroll’ is an Irish surname – similar to the Latin ‘Carolus’ – from which we get ‘Charles’….
Although Charles always claimed his character of Alice was not based on any one particular child – there are many who believe she was a real person….and with good reason…. Charles became close to the Liddell family, Henry Liddell being Dean of the College. Charles was especially good friends with the Dean’s wife, Lorina and their three daughters, Lorina, Edith and ‘Alice’….and it is perhaps ‘she’ who was his influence…. Indeed the poem at the end of ‘Through the Looking-Glass’‘A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky’ is an acrostic spelling out ‘Alice Pleasance Liddell’….
Even after his success and his increase in wealth and fame (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is translated into over 70 languages) little changed in his life…. He continued to teach at Christ Church and remained in residence until his death ~ although as he got older he did spend more of his time at the house of his six unmarried sisters – ‘The Chestnuts’ in Guildford….
Two weeks before his 66th birthday Charles died from pneumonia after a bout of influenza – at ‘The Chestnuts’…. He is buried at Mount Cemetery, in Guildford….
On this day in history : 23rd November 1990 – The death of much-loved children’’s author Roald Dahl…. But did you know he was also an ace fighter pilot, spy, medical inventor and chocolate historian?
Roald was born on the 13th of September 1916 to Norwegian parents living in Llandoff, Wales…. He was named after Roald Amundson, the Norwegian adventurer and explorer who was the first man to reach the South Pole…. Norwegian was Roald’s first language, as this is what the family spoke at home….
When he was three years old his seven year old sister died from appendicitis – and then just a few weeks after his father succumbed to pneumonia…. Soon after his mother gave birth to another little sister…. His father had always believed that English schools were the best in the world and had wanted his children to be educated in them…. With this in mind his mother chose not to return to Norway but to remain in Wales so she could honour his wish…. Roald first attended Cathedral School in Llandoff before being sent to St. Peter’s Boarding School in Weston-Super-Mare…. He was desperately homesick and wrote to his mother every week – but never let on how unhappy he was…. Then in 1929, at the age of thirteen, he was sent even further away, to Repton School in Derbyshire…. He was even more miserable here; corporal punishment was frequently used – Roald detested the cruelty and found it hard to accept that beating children was permissible….
Roald’s talent for writing was not recognised during his schooling…. He was seen as an accomplished sportsman though; he was captain of the school’s squash team and was good at cricket, golf and football…. He grew tall, ending up at a height of 6ft 6in….
He had other varied interests; he was keen on photography – and he discovered a love of chocolate…. The Cadbury’s factory was near to the school and occasionally boxes of new chocolates would arrive for the boys to try out…. Roald would daydream about making up a chocolate bar of his own to wow Cadbury’s…. It was his passion for the confection that inspired his third children’s book in 1964 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…. He would often refer to chocolate in his stories….
Roald left school in 1934 and started to work for the Shell Petroleum company, being posted to Kenya and Tanzania…. In August 1939, with World War Two approaching, he was still in Tanzania and was draughted as a lieutenant into the King’s African Rifles…. Then in the November of 1939 he joined the RAF to become a pilot…. After completing his training he was assigned to No.80 Squadron, flying the RAF’s last fighter bi-planes, Gloster Gladiators…. It was whilst flying one of these that on the 19th of September 1940 he was forced to make an emergency landing in the desert…. The aircraft crashed – Roald suffered a fractured skull and lost his vision…. He was rescued and taken to a Royal Naval hospital where he eventually regained his sight – and in February 1941 he was declared fit enough to fly again….
To rejoin his squadron Roald had to travel to Eleusina near to Athens – where they had been transferred to join the Greek Campaign…. This time he was to fly Hawker Hurricane aircraft and on the 15th of April 1941 he was to take part in his first aerial combat and in which he was to shoot down is first plane…. The following day he shot down another…. On the 20th of April he took part in the Battle of Athens….
By May the Germans were advancing and the squadron was evacuated to Egypt…. For over a month Roald was to fly sorties every day but during the second half of June he began to suffer severe headaches causing him to blackout…. He was invalided out of the squadron, returned to Britain and posted to an RAF training base at Uxbridge – with the idea of him becoming an instructor once his health had sufficiently recovered…. It was whilst on a trip to London in the late March of 1942 that he was to meet Major Harold Balfour, Under-Secretary of State for Air…. Balfour was so impressed by Roald that he appointed him assistant air attaché to the British Embassy in Washington DC….
While in the States Roald was to meet the writer C.S.Forester, who had been commissioned by the Saturday Evening Post to write a piece on Roald’s flying experiences…. He asked Roald to jot something down that he could work with…. However, when he received the account he was so impressed that Roald’s story was published exactly as he had written it – this was to be Roald’s first ever published work….
Roald was beginning to move within different circles…. He was to meet and work with British army officer Ian Fleming – author of the James Bond stories…. And he was then introduced to the world of espionage – and to Canadian spymaster William Stephenson, code name Intrepid….. It was Roald’s task to supply intelligence from Washington back to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and to MI6…. By now he had been promoted to Wing Commander and before long he had become Squadron Leader…. But in August 1946 his ongoing injuries from his aircraft crash meant him being invalided out of the RAF – as a flying ace having more than five victories to his name….
On the 2nd of July 1953 Roald married American actress Patricia Neal and they were to have four daughters and one son…. In December 1960 four month old Theo’s pram was struck by a New York taxi cab, leaving him with serious injuries…. Little Theo suffered with Hydrocephalus – an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in his brain…. Roald worked with neurosurgeon Kenneth Till from Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital and hydraulic engineer Stanley Wade to develop a valve – the Wade-Dahl-Till Valve – which was used with a shunt to alleviate the condition…. The valve went on to be used to help nearly 3,000 children all around the world….
In November 1962 Roald’s eldest daughter, Olivia, died from measles at the age of seven…. He was beside himself with grief and guilt at not being able to help her…. (His 1982 book, The BFG, is dedicated to her)…. Roald became a promoter of immunisation…. Then in 1965 his wife suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms whilst pregnant with their fifth child…. Roald had to help her learn how to walk and talk again – eventually she recovered enough to be able to return to her acting career…. A film was made about their story in 1981 The Patricia Neal Story – starring Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde….
In 1972 Roald began an affair with Felicity d’Abreu Crosland – who he later married after he and Patricia divorced in 1983…. With his new wife he lived at Gypsy House, a home he had owned since 1954 in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire…. His first children’s book, The Gremlins, had been published in 1943 – and he went on to write some of the best loved children’s stories of all time: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, Fantastic Mr Fox, Matilda, The Witches, The Twits, Danny Champion of the World and George’s Marvellous Medicine…. He also wrote stories for adults, which were often macabre – and many were adapted for TV and film, such as Tales of the Unexpected and Alfred Hitchcock Presents…. He wrote screenplays and for television…. Roald was a prolific writer – but then with his own life experiences he would never have been short of something to write about…. He has been named one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945 and it is estimated over 250 million of his books have been sold; he has been published in some 60 different languages….
On the 23rd of November 1990, at the age of 74, Roald died from a rare cancer of the blood…. He was buried at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire – along with his snooker cues, a good bottle of Burgundy, some chocolates, HB pencils – and a power saw!