Newbury Society Bulletin January 2022

Dates for Your Diary – 2022

(all subject to confirmation due to the Coronavirus pandemic)

Talks are held in the Parish Room, St John’s Church, St John’s Road, Newbury RG14 7PY.

Admission is free for members or £2.50 for non-members. Visitors are most welcome.

Thursday 10th February, 7:30pm – Willie Hartley-Russell: The roles and responsibilities of the High Sheriff 

Willie Hartley Russell was sworn in as the High Sheriff of Berkshire on Friday 26th March, 2021, for this year.  The Office of High Sheriff is an independent, non-political, Royal appointment for the period of one year. It is the oldest secular office in country apart from the monarchy. Today, the role is now largely ceremonial, but carries the status of being the Queen’s highest judicial officer in the county.  The role involves a mix of ceremonial, charitable and community functions.
Note the change from the details previously advertised – Dave Stubbs’ talk about the First Battle of Newbury will be given at a later date.

Thursday 10th March, 7:30pm – Anthony Beeson: Understanding Boxford’s Roman Mosaic

The late Roman figurative mosaic discovered at Mud Hole, Boxford in Berkshire between 2017 and 2019 has proved to be the most important found in Britain for over fifty years. Covered with scenes from classical mythology and with a unique design, it is indeed unlike anything previously found in Britain. This lecture offers the excavator’s interpretation into its design, the wealth of figurative work and the stories from Greco-Roman mythology that it depicts and how it reflects the art of its own and previous centuries and the culture of those who commissioned it.

Anthony is an expert on Roman and Greek art and architecture, a Classical iconographer.  He is the author of the books Roman Gardens and The Boxford Mosaic, as well as many articles on antiquities and art in academic journals. His latest volume, Mosaics in Roman Britain is due for publication in March 2022. He is the Hon. Archivist of the Association for Roman Archaeology, and a member and former Archivist of the Association for the Study and Preservation of Roman Mosaics, and has appeared on Time Team. In 2017-9 he interpreted, excavated and produced the official report on the internationally-famous mosaic of Pegasus and Bellerophon found at Boxford in Berkshire.

Thursday 14th April, 7:30pm – Jon Winstanley: Newbury Traffic and Transport

Jon is the Service Director for Environment at West Berkshire Council. He will be looking at a range of issues, including how the council assesses demand, recent and planned schemes for highways changes in and around Newbury (including the Robin Hood roundabout); work on alternative travel options; and demand management/ co-ordination.

Thursday 12th May, 7:30pm – Sue Ellis: Conservation Area Appraisals: Enhancing historic areas

Sue qualified at Reading University in the 1970’s with a degree in History and Archaeology, and although her career before retirement was mostly based in libraries and in local authority policy departments, she maintains her deep interest in local history with membership of several local societies. She took a post graduate certificate in the archaeology of standing buildings in 2002, and now provides training and support for local parishes and societies on local listing, and the conservation area appraisal process.

Saturday 25th June 5:30pm – Mid-summer Evening cruise on the narrowboat Jubilee

Join your Committee for this summer’s social event.  The Kennet & Avon Canal Trust’s narrowboat Jubilee will be cruising west from Newbury to just beyond Benham Lock before returning.  Full details and booking forms will be circulated nearer the time.

Thursday 8th September, 7:30pm details to be advised  

Thursday 13th October, 7:30pm – AGM + David Peacock: Newbury in 2022 

Thursday 10th November, 7:30pm – Phil Wood: Newbury Breweries

THE NEWBURY SOCIETY – OFFICERS AND COMMITTEE 2021/22
President: Lord Benyon      Vice President: Garry Poulson
OFFICERS
Chairman, Planning Spokesman and Local History Advisor: David Peacock 01635 524017 chairman@grahamvsmith

Treasurer and Membership Administrator:
Mike Hood 07775 800183 treasurer@newbury-society.org.uk & membership@grahamvsmith

Secretary, Bulletin Editor and Waterways Representative:
Graham Smith 01635 580356 secretary@newbury-society.org.uk
COMMITTEE
Dr Paul Bryant
Yolande Fothergill
John Handy (Trees & Landscaping Advisor)
Chris Marriage
Garry Poulson

Telegraphing above the Clouds

Fred Davison

Not many people know that in 1899 Newbury played host to an important experiment which forecast the possibilities of using radio telegraphy to communicate with an air traveller. Wireless transmission of radio signals, Radiotelegraphy, had been invented by Guglielmo Marconi in 1894-95 and its potential for communication over great distances was soon realised. Marconi and others carried out various experiments using kites attached to vertical wires to demonstrate communication to a high-flying object; however, no one had demonstrated that communication was possible between an earth station and airborne vehicle flying freely above the clouds and over the horizon without any earth contact.  

Enter John N. Maskelyne, who lived on Bucklebury Common, and his son Nevil who were both famed magicians but also talented inventors. Father and son quickly grasped the immense potential of radiotelegraphy and set about exploiting the new technology. Naturally, they involved their good friend, the ever-inquisitive Rev. John M. Bacon, the Scientific Balloonist from Cold Ash. In late July1899 they explored the possibility that a balloon travelling above the clouds, could maintain contact with an earth station. This, of course, had immense importance for the military and the proposed experiment excited much interest in government circles and the armed forces, as well as being widely commented on in the press. Transmission of radio signals to a free-flying balloon filled with over 50,000 cubic feet of highly explosive gas had never been attempted, so a number of problems had to be overcome, with safety being the main concern. A balloon filled with coal gas could not provide sufficient lift to carry the extra weight of heavy batteries and a bulky transmitter, so the balloon had to be a receiver station only.

Maskelyne inspecting the receiver

Water dropper

The transmitter aerial

At that time, the standard radio receiver required a good earth contact, which was impossible with a free-flying balloon. With some ingenuity the problem was resolved by using as the earth connection a water dropper device slung below the balloon basket, so allowing a safe contact with the moisture and static electricity in the clouds. Prevention of a build-up of static was of paramount importance to prevent a spark igniting the thousands of cubic feet of coal gas in the open-necked balloon. A wire was run up the rigging to the top of the silk balloon and connected to a small receiver in the basket below. An ascent was planned from the Newbury area with the transmitter carrying vertical wires for transmission of the radio signals needing to be as tall as was possible.

Bacon often made balloon ascents from Newbury Gasworks in Kings Road, which provided a ready supply of coal gas with a good hydrogen content necessary to provide lift. Gertrude Bacon (1907†) described how in 1898 Bacon made his first scientific balloon ascent from the corner of a field adjacent to the elm avenue that led to Shaw House. There must have been a gas main nearby for filling the balloon. This location would appear to be Horsepool Field, Speenhamland Farm where the Newbury Guildhall Club held a gymkhana on 27th July 1898. One year later, on 29th July Bacon made his radiotelegraph ascent from the same location and took two aerial photographs of the launch site at an interval of two minutes. In the first image, the spacing of the crowd indicates that lift-off was from the empty circular area to the left of the marquee, with people crowded to one side. It is possible there was a large gas pipe crossing the field on this photograph. The image taken from a greater height gives a better view of the area with, what is now, London Road on the left side of the photograph. The distinctive roofline and spire of St Mary’s Church, Speenhamland (demolished in 1973 and pictured inset) can be seen to the left of the roadway and at the top left the large white building could be 37 London Road, which today stands at the junction with Parkway. I am most grateful to the Chairman of the Newbury Society for recognising significant buildings in London Road, especially St Mary’s Church, and so identifying the launch location.

Bacon (1899‡) described the day as perfect with a sky flecked with summer clouds. At take-off the balloon rose swiftly and was soon hidden from view by clouds. At one mile high the aeronautical party was completely severed from earth yet continued to receive Morse code messages across empty space. The balloon floated eastwards to Bradfield where it encountered cold air currents which drove it south-eastwards to Swallowfield; it passed over Wellington College and Sandhurst then Ascot, travelling eastwards to Crystal Palace where it descended after two hours, some 46 miles away. The balloon party consisted of Bacon, his daughter Gertrude, a fellow scientist Thomas Simpson, and the balloon captain Percival Spencer. The party engaged themselves in making various scientific observations, taking photographs and decoding the Morse code messages. Radio signals were received clearly, and their instructions obeyed promptly: firstly, by unfurling a flag; at a greater distance by letting off fog signals and further still by firing explosives. In Bacon’s own words: “The idea [was] that we were supposed to be dispatched as a reconnoitring party over enemy’s territory, and … being dismissed from a beleaguered city with which I could maintain communication …” This, no doubt, satisfied the War Office which had engaged with Bacon in various military exercises and balloon races, indulging Bacon’s passion for war gaming and aerial pyrotechnics. 

Whilst the experiment had serious intent, it was not lacking in humour. Rev. John Bacon was President of the Newbury Guildhall Club, a social club for local young men with ambitions, mainly tradesmen’s sons, shop assistants and mechanics. These enterprising young men enthusiastically staffed the Newbury signal station under the management of Nevil Maskelyne. Bacon recalled that many of the actual transmitted Morse code messages were nonsense: “Come back, you have my stopwatch!” followed by “Don’t tumble out” and “Mind the Moon”. Messages commenced about two minutes after take-off and were received for a further twenty minutes, some 12 -13 miles distance travelled. Bacon estimated that contact would have been maintained for a further 10 to 15 miles if the Newbury transmitter mast had been twenty feet taller. Nevertheless, the experiment was a great success. One month later, Bacon repeated it for the British Association of Science, flying from Bradford to Sheffield, keeping in radio contact in an experiment witnessed by many scientists.  

These successful experiments enhanced Bacon’s standing in the scientific community and provided much material for his popular magazine articles and public lectures. Nevil Maskelyne went on to become manager of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company. 

† Gertrude Bacon (1907) The Record of an Aeronaut: Being the Life of John M. Bacon, publ. John Long, London.
‡ J. M. Bacon (1899) Telegraphing from the Clouds, Pearson Magazine, 480 – 484.

Blue Plaque for Education Pioneer

On January 20th a blue plaque was unveiled to Esther Jane Luker, the head teacher of the first state secondary school in Newbury for girls, which has since become part of St Bartholomew’s School.

Known as Jane or “Miss Luker,” she was educated at Dulwich High School and then at Girton College, Cambridge, where she gained the Mathematical Tripos with honours.  She was not awarded her B.A., because this was decades before Cambridge awarded degrees to women.  She was also a keen hockey player, and college games captain.   

After teaching at schools in Sheffield and Winchester, she arrived in Newbury in 1904, when Newbury Girls’ Grammar School was opened at the Technical Institute in Northbrook Street with less than 40 pupils. Her aim in Newbury was to create the kind of school which would encourage girls to go on to university.  

Purpose-built buildings were erected on the Andover Road, and the school transferred in 1910.  Miss Luker moved into the house next door, Tirhoger, with Maud Cobbe, the deputy headmistress, and boarders.  By 1914 the school had 250 pupils.  Miss Luker had her own style; believing that the best learning was that pursued for the love of it.  She retired in 1933, leaving for the Chichester area with Miss Cobbe, and she died in 1969 at the age of 97.

In September 1975 the Newbury Girls’ Grammar School merged with St. Bartholomew’s School, to become coeducational.  With the redevelopment of St Bart’s, there were plans to demolish the Luker building in 2008, but (partly as a result of a campaign from the Newbury Society), the building was saved and converted into flats.

This plaque is the 14th in the series organised by Newbury Town Council, and supported by the Newbury Society.  Details of all the plaques and a map of the locations can be found on the Newbury Society website.

Flats at the former Magistrates’ Court site

A four-storey block of flats has been proposed for the site of the former Magistrates’ Court, in Mill Lane next to Newbury Police Station.

The site is alongside the Canal, prominent from the towpath, and is for 28 one- and two-bedroom flats in one block, with the top floor set slightly back.  We have raised objections because of the prominent and sensitive position of the site.  We feel that, in terms of design, developers should look to the nearby Greenham Mill development to show what can be done using local design themes, including pitched roofs and gables.

We also feel that, as proposed, the landscaping next to the Canal is too restricted.  The Canal is a wildlife corridor through Newbury, and this needs to be preserved and encouraged, rather than restricted.  The creation of a Conservation Area along the canal here in 1983 was intended to offer some protection.

For anyone who wishes to comment on the plans, the application number is 21/03024/FULEXT.  We would welcome your views on this or any other local applications.

Left: the proposed design viewed from the Canal

Bottom left: the Canal frontage of the court building (now demolished)

Bottom right: the Mill Lane frontage of the court building

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