Wednesday, 20 September 2023

Frank Hornby, toy inventor - by Susan Brownrigg


Meccano, Hornby Trains, Dinky Toys – these beloved classic toys were all the creation of one man – Frank Hornby!

Frank Hornby

There is a bit of mystery about when Frank was born, his birth certificate says 15th May but the Hornby family bible records the date as 2nd May! But it is known that he was born in Liverpool in 1863.

Frank was the 7th of eight children and his family were working class. His father was a porter at the docks, and Frank preferred to help him at work rather than go to school!

From a young age Frank knew he wanted to be an inventor, but he had a few setbacks along the way. Frank though was heavily influenced by a self-help book he was given as a young man written by Samuel Smiles by his mother, which encouraged resilience.*

He knew to persist, and when he went on to have a family of his own, he had a breakthrough.

Frank's idea was for a construction kit that could be
 made into a crane, bridge or truck
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

Playing with his sons he came up with the idea of creating a construction kit using strips of copper which he drilled holes into at regular intervals. These strips could then be fastened together using nuts and bolts to become bridges, trucks or cranes!

Convinced that his idea would make a successful business. With a loan of £5 (£1000 today) he patented his invention with the title Improvements in Toys or Educational devices for Children and Young People! After a bit of a false start and the support of his employer who became his partner, in 1902 Frank began to produce his Mechanics Made Easy construction kits. The sets had 16 parts and an instruction booklet for making 12 models and cost 7s 6s (£80 today). It was a hit – though the name was later changed to Meccano!

An early Mechanic Made Easy kit
at the Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

More components were made available and there were even competitions for new design suggestions with big prize money up for grabs!

In 1908 Frank’s family moved to a house in Maghull very close to the railway station. His house, The Hollies, was the first outside of London to be given a blue plaque by English Heritage.

Maghull railway station
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

In 1920 Frank started making clockwork toys (Hornby O Gauge). Originally these were in the form of construction kits too, but after five years all Hornby Trains came already fully assembled.

Hornby Trains at the Frank Hornby
Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

Frank realised it would be great fun for children if they could create railway layouts – lifelike scenes, not just track. The first set of ‘modelled miniatures’ were six tiny station worker figures, and the story goes that when he showed them to his daughter-in-law she said ‘they are dinky little things’ so they were renamed Dinky Toys!

Dinky Toys included people, signage and a host of vehicles.

Post boxes made by Dinky Toys at the
Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

Other transport produced were speedboats, aircraft and motor car kits.

Motor Car toys on display at the
Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

Other, perhaps less known, Hornby toys that were produced were The Meccano Crystal Radio Receiving Set, Cassy dolls and doll houses and Kemex chemistry sets.

Kemex Chemical Experiments kit at the 
Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

While Meccano was marketed as engineering for boys, other products were advertised to appeal for girls too. Examples include Bayko (seen below) Dinky Builder and Dolly Varden dolls houses and furniture.

Bayko toys were advertised as gifts for girls and boys 
as seen here at the Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

Frank went on to become an MP but had to retire due to ill health. He died in 1936 and was buried in the family grave at St Andrew's Church, Maghull. 

His toys have provided children with many, many happy hours playing and creating inventions of their own, just like Frank.

Writing Challenge: Can you write a story about a child toy inventor?  What type of toy will the create and what will it do? It might even have magical properties!

Susan Brownrigg with her own Dinky Toy car
at the Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull
(photo by Susan Brownrigg)

Susan Brownrigg is the author of Kintana and the Captain's Curse, a treasure hunt adventure with pirates and lemurs, and the Gracie Fairshaw mystery series set in 1930s Blackpool.
Find out more at

* Interestingly this book was also lauded by William Lever (the soap king who was the subject of another Time Tunneller blog and video)

With thanks to Tony Robertson, Frank Hornby Heritage Centre, Maghull, for filming/photography permission 

Thursday, 14 September 2023

Scottish Standing Stones – Myths and Legends by Victoria Williamson

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of magical rings in natural environments. My interest might have been sparked by the strange ring of leaves that sprouted up from my front lawn every spring as a child. My parents didn’t know what plant they came from, or why the ring was there – they certainly hadn’t planted the seeds! One year someone’s bag of small polystyrene bean bag balls must’ve burst when they were putting out their rubbish, because when I came home from school one day, I found a small scattering of them dotted under the hedges by the footpath. I remember convincing my brother these polystyrene balls were ‘fairy eggs’, and if we collected them and put then under the leaves in the ‘fairy ring’ in our lawn, they’d hatch into fairies. I’m not sure now if I was just teasing him, or whether I was actually trying to convince myself that magic was real! Or my interest might have begun with the toadstool ring in the 1980s ZX Spectrum 48K game ‘The Curse of Sherwood.’ At one point, Friar Tuck had to step into a ring of toadstools to get to different area of the forest, and I was always fascinated by him vanishing and then re-appearing in a different place. I loved the idea that rings of plants, toadstools and stones were magical, and this is what inspired my latest historical children’s book, The Whistlers in the Dark, in which a circle of ancient standing stones is awoken by accident and goes walking through the night. Although my book is set in 158AD – the date which current research suggests the Antonine Wall was abandoned – stone circles in Scotland are far more ancient than that. Thought to date back between 3,000-5,000 years, the reason why they were built is still a mystery. There are many theories about this. Some researchers suggest they were places of ceremony and worship, while others think they might have been burial grounds or gathering places.
Victoria at Machrie Mhor I’ve been lucky enough to have had the chance to visit two stone circles in the last year – the Machrie Moor standing stones on the Isle of Arran, and the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney. Machrie Moor contains the remains of six stone circles – some made of granite boulders, and some made of red sandstone. Excavations in 1861 revealed that the centre of circles number two and four there was a ‘cist’, which is a small, coffin-like box made of stone. While these were often used as ‘ossuaries’ – boxes to hold the remains of the dead – two of these cists also contained food vessels. You can have a look at an interactive model of one of these Bronze Age food vessels exhibited by the National Museum of Scotland here.
The Ring of Brodgar On my visit to Orkney as part of an archaeological field trip, I found the Ring of Brodgar stone circle to be equal parts beautiful and eerie – exactly as I had imagined the stone circle which features in The Whistlers in the Dark. The Ring of Brodgar’s original stone circle consisted of sixty stones, of which thirty-six still survive. The reason for the circle’s construction has been lost in the mists of time, but legends say that one starry night, a band of giants were so enchanted by the music played by a fiddler that they danced until sunrise, and were turned to stone by the rays of dawn. Over the years, poems – such as Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown’s ‘Brodgar Poems’ – stories, and even TV shows such as ‘Outlander’ have celebrated the standing stone circles of Scotland, adding to their myth and appeal. Stone circles might not be magical themselves and they might not be able to physically transport us to different places the way I’d hoped as a child, but there is a certain kind of magic in the way that they can transport our imaginations to different worlds in the past, and the way they continue to influence our works of fiction both in print and on screen. My own novel is testament to the fact that over 5,000 years after the first were thought to have been built, the stone circles of Scotland continue to play an important part in our cultural heritage, reaching out from the past to influence the story tellers of the future.

Wednesday, 6 September 2023

Six Things You Never Knew About the Great Fire of London by Catherine Randall

Everyone knows about the Great Fire of London. When I go into Year 2 classes dressed as a bookseller from 1666, the children tend to know almost as much about it as I do, which says a lot about how well it is taught.

But when I wrote The White Phoenix, my novel for 9 to 12 year olds set in London 1666, I had to delve deeply into the history of the Great Fire of London and I found out lots of things that I hadn’t known before.

I thought you might like to know them too – so here are Six Things You Never Knew About the Great Fire of London!

1. It wasn’t the first Great Fire of London

If you’d talked to a Londoner in 1665 about the ‘Great Fire of London’, they would probably have assumed you were talking about the Great Fire of July 1212 – also called the Great Fire of Southwark. As its name suggests, this began in Southwark, just across the river from the City of London, at the south end of London Bridge.  The fire destroyed most of Borough High Street and then began to spread across London Bridge, which at that time was covered with wooden houses and shops. To make matters worse, the wind blew embers across the river igniting the northern end of the bridge. Hundreds of people became trapped on the bridge – some fleeing the fire from the south, and some coming across from the north to help fight the fire. There are no reliable contemporary reports of the number who died, but a later historian suggested it could have been as many as 3,000. That seems very high, but whatever the truth, it is clear that many more people lost their lives in the fire of 1212 than in the fire of 1666. 

Picture credit: London Fire Brigade. (c) Mary Evans Picture Library

There was another big fire in 1633 which destroyed premises on the northern third of London Bridge. You can see from this painting of the Great Fire of 1666 that there are no buildings on the north (left) side of the bridge. This is because these buildings had not been rebuilt after 1633,  which proved to be a very good thing in 1666, because it created a firebreak on the bridge, preventing the Great Fire of London spreading to the opposite bank of the Thames.

2. England was at war!

In 1666, England was at war with two countries – the Netherlands and France. This was the Second Anglo-Dutch war, begun in early 1665, mainly due to rivalry over overseas trade. The stakes were raised in February 1666 when the French joined in on the side of the Dutch.

A sea battle during the Anglo-Dutch war (credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

The war was fought mainly at sea, but all through the hot, dry summer of 1666 there was a very real fear of invasion. When the fire broke out, many people believed it was an act of war by the French or the Dutch, and that they'd deliberately set fire to the city. It meant that among all the chaos of people trying to save their houses and their possessions, mobs were going round attacking anyone thought to be French or Dutch. It was a terrifying time to be a foreigner on the streets of London.

3. The Mayor’s Nightmare...

Obviously, the big question about the Great Fire of London is how a city which was used to fires and had lots of procedures in place to deal with them allowed a fire to spread so far and so fast that it practically destroyed the whole city? 

We’re taught lots of reasons for this – a hot summer, the wooden buildings all crammed together, a strong wind – but in fact there is one person who deserves to be better known, for all the wrong reasons: Sir Thomas Bludworth, the Lord Mayor of London.

The most important thing about controlling fires is to contain them straightaway. Sir Thomas Bludworth soon arrived at the scene of the fire, but he refused to let the firefighters pull down the houses on either side of Farriner’s bakery without the permission of the owners, and he didn’t know where the owners were because most houses were rented. So he just blustered and said the fire wasn’t as bad as all that, or words to that effect, and went home to bed. By the time he returned in the morning, the fire was out of control.

Both contemporaries and later historians consider Bludworth’s failure to contain the fire a crucial factor in its unprecedented spread.

Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, blamed Sir Thomas Bludworth for not preventing the calamity of the Great Fire, as did many others in the aftermath (picture credit: National Portrait Gallery)

4. Fire engine falls in the Thames!

Believe it or not, an early type of fire engine already existed at the time of the Great Fire, and there were several in London. Of course they were nothing like our modern fire engines, being basically pumps mounted on carriages.  Sadly they were too large and too heavy to be of much help, and one of them even fell in the Thames!

A seventeenth-century fire engine

5. A Frenchman was hanged for starting the Great Fire

A young French watchmaker called Robert Hubert confessed to starting the Fire by throwing a fireball through the window of Thomas Farriner’s bakeshop on the night of 1st/2nd September. It had already been established by the authorities that the fire had been started accidentally, and not maliciously, but Hubert insisted that he had done it and was brought to trial. When questioned, his story kept changing, he seemed to have no motive, and then it emerged that he hadn’t even been in London at the time. Nevertheless, he insisted that he had done it, and he was hanged for it.

Even at the time, this was seen as a bizarre miscarriage of justice, but for Londoners it did have a significant upside. When it came to the question of deciding who should pay for the rebuilding of London, the judges ruled that as the Frenchman Hubert had hung for it, the fire had legally been caused by an ‘enemy’, and therefore owners, not tenants, should pay for the rebuilding. Excellent news for ordinary folk!

6. The rebuilding

Despite many eminent people having lots of great ideas about new designs for rebuilding the City after the Fire, it was pretty much built on the same lines as pre-Fire London with the addition of one or two new streets. In fact, the layouts of the streets and buildings in the City of London didn’t change much until after the Blitz in 1940 during World War II.

Richard Newcourt's rebuilding scheme for London, 1666


After the Great Fire of London, there were appeals to towns and villages throughout the whole country to raise money to help the homeless citizens of London.

Imagine you are responsible for telling people in another town what has happened in London and why the city needs help. Can you describe what has happened and persuade people to give money? Your letter can be quite short, but you need to get some crucial information in there so that people realise just how much of a calamity it is, and how much of the City has been destroyed.

Catherine Randall is the author of The White Phoenix , an historical novel for 9-12 year olds set in London, 1666. It was shortlisted for the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2021. Catherine is currently working on a children's novel set in Victorian London.

The White Phoenix is published by the Book Guild and available from bookshops and online retailers

For more information, go to Catherine’s website:

Twitter: @Crr1Randall.

Wednesday, 30 August 2023

The World's Deadliest Book, by Matthew Wainwright

Throughout history there have been many dangerous books.

Sometimes books are labelled as ‘dangerous’ because they contain ideas that the authorities consider dangerous for people to read. Sometimes it's how people react to the books that is dangerous: people have been threatened, or even killed, because they had read, written or possessed some books. Sometimes the books really are dangerous, because the people who wrote them are trying to encourage people to hurt or attack others.

But why are books in particular objects of such contention? Why have people banned books, and why do they continue to ban books?

It's because books are vehicles for ideas—they’re one of the main ways that people express themselves to the world at large—and if humans are good at anything it’s getting upset at other people’s ideas!

The book we’re talking about today is perhaps one of the most contentious in the world. Certainly many people have died because of the things that it says, and because they have either supported it or disagreed with it. And yet it’s a book that many people in this country will have read, even if it’s just in part, and you’re probably never far from a copy.

'Tyndale's Bible' (Wikimedia Commons)

The book is called The Bible, and it’s the book that most Christians use as their guide for life and faith. It can be called a ‘dangerous’ or ‘deadly’ book for two of the reasons listed above: various people throughout history have said that its ideas are dangerous; and people have sometimes reacted dangerously to those who read or possess it.

The Bible is a fantastic example of how people react to books, and it helps us to think about the power of books and reading. Let’s go down a Time Tunnel and find out a bit about one of the most influential (and dangerous!) books ever written …
'Gutenberg Bible' (Wikimedia Commons)

The name ‘The Bible’ comes from a Greek phrase ‘ta biblia’, which simply means ‘the books’. It’s made up of several dozen parts, which were written and brought together over the course of about two thousand years. It includes Jewish religious writings, history, and poetry, as well as letters and accounts written by the followers of Jesus.

The first parts of the Bible (called the Old Testament) were written (for the most part) in ancient Hebrew. These parts were carefully handed down by the nation of Israel, and they were translated into Greek during the reign of Alexander the Great (about two or three hundred years before the birth of Jesus). Greek was the main language of the Middle East at the time, and people wanted to be able to read the Jewish holy texts in their own language.

After Jesus arrived, and founded what came to be called the Christian religion, his followers added their own writings (the New Testament) to the Jewish books, this time writing in Greek. By this time the Roman Empire had taken over most of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The Romans spoke Latin, but most common people still spoke and wrote in Greek.
Page of the Bible in Latin (Wikimedia Commons)

Over time, however, Latin took over as the main language of the Empire, and as Christianity grew and spread and became an important part of Roman society, the Bible was translated again—this time into Latin. Once again, people wanted to be able to read this important book in their own language.

Eventually Christianity grew into the dominant religion in Europe, and the Christian Church, led by the Pope, became a powerful religious and political entity. After the fall of the Roman Empire Latin faded away as the language of common people, replaced by the various languages and dialects of the new European kingdoms—including the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons, ruled by Alfred the Great, in what we now call England.

Statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester (Wikimedia Commons)

At this point the Bible was still in Latin, and for the most part only those who were educated could read it. Various people, including King Alfred and a monk called Bede, translated parts of the Bible into the language of their people—but there was no complete Bible translation until the 1300s, when a man called John Wycliffe (with others) translated the Bible into English for the first time.

The Church of Rome was not happy about this, however, and in 1401 a law was passed that made Bible translation illegal. Many English Bibles were burned, and those who possessed them were arrested.

For over a hundred years there was no more Bible translation—until, in 1525, a man named William Tyndale printed a new English translation of the New Testament. At this point Bible translation was still illegal in England, however, so Tyndale had to work from Europe, in Antwerp.
Reconstruction of an early moveable type printing press (Wikimedia Commons)

Tyndale’s efforts were supported by the invention of the moveable type printing press some years before. Instead of having to hand-write each new copy, hundreds of copies of Tyndale’s translation could be printed at a time, meaning that his New Testament could be read by thousands of people very quickly, in their own language.

Tyndale’s supporters smuggled these printed copies of the New Testament into England, sometimes by hiding them in bales of hay. Those who did so literally risked their lives—the punishment for heresy and treason was execution by burning.

Religion in Europe was changing. Academics were beginning to question the absolute authority of the Roman Church, and King Henry VIII of England was beginning to wonder why he should have to obey the word of a Pope who lived in a city thousands of miles away.

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (Wikimedia Commons)

Spurred on by his desire to get rid of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry the much younger Anne Boleyn, Henry broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and formed the Church of England, with himself as its head. Gradually, opposition to an English Bible faded, and the first official English Bibles began to appear in churches.

This came too late to save Tyndale, who was betrayed, arrested, and burned at the stake in 1536. Some historians also think that Anne Boleyn’s eventual arrest and execution was partly due to her over-enthusiastic support for those who wanted religious change—along with her failure to give Henry the son he so desperately wanted.

Statue of William Tyndale, Victoria Embankment Gardens, London (Wikimedia Commons)

What followed was a time of immense upheaval. Allegiances and religious opinions changed sometimes overnight, and the wrong word could easily lead to arrest and execution. Many people suffered and died because of their beliefs at this time, on both sides of the argument. Some of the tensions continue to this day!

Now the Bible has been translated into nearly every language in the world, and there are numerous English translations to choose from. It is still a ‘dangerous’ book, and people still use it to justify doing terrible things to each other—but there are also many people who find its message life-changing, and who use its teachings to guide them into acts of kindness and charity.

All this helps us to understand the power of books. It’s amazing to think that paper and ink can hold such sway over the hearts and minds of people. But after all, it isn’t the paper or the ink that influences people, but the ideas they communicate.

No matter what you think of the Bible—or the Qur’an, or the Talmud, or the sacred texts of Hinduism or Buddhism or any other religion—they are remarkable objects, because they help us to travel through time and hear the thoughts and beliefs of people living thousands of years ago. Those people are long dead, but they still speak to us today through these books.

Whether it is a religious text, or an epic Greek poem, or a play by Shakespeare, or a novel by Dickens, or the latest bestseller that we read on a Kindle—books help us to communicate through time and space. They really are remarkable, and they should be treasured.

Writing challenge

For this week’s writing challenge we’re celebrating books! It’s a really simple challenge (hardly a challenge at all): just write a couple of lines about something you have read that you think everyone should read.

It could be a long book, a short book, a comic book, a poem, or anything else that you have read. Tell everyone why they should read it, and why it means so much to you.

That’s it! Happy reading and writing, and keep time tunnelling!


Matthew Wainwright is an author of historical fiction for children and teenagers.

You can preorder Through Water and Fire (released 31st October 2023) here. (Free UK postage on all preorders)

Out of the Smoke is available at all good bookshops and online.

You can find out more about Matthew and his books on his website.

Wednesday, 23 August 2023

The Memory of Stones by Barbara Henderson

Give me a stone castle and I’m happy!
When I moved to Scotland in 1991, I was smitten with stone. It stirred something in me – the hulking, heavy-hewn rocks of Edinburgh Castle, the smooth-stepped cobbles of the Royal Mile, the rugged volcanic rock of Arthur's Seat. If you narrow your eyes in these places and let your vision blur, tourists and townsfolk simply fall away. You can imagine how the city may have looked a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago and beyond. It doesn’t take much more than that to get my imagination going. I began to visit other places – stone circles, old dykes, castles and courtyards, ruins and rambling walls. The fascination is the same.
I couldn't put my finger on it. In the end, it was a quote from Scottish writer Neil Gunn which articulated what, I think, has drawn me to such places for as long as I can remember. He talks of ‘the memory of stones’. That expression nails it, doesn’t it – what have these stones seen? If they could talk, what could they tell us? A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to visit Spynie Palace (also called Spynie Castle) near the Moray town of Elgin, roughly halfway between Inverness and Aberdeen. Not only is the palace the largest surviving medieval bishop’s house in Scotland and residence of the bishops of Moray for 500 years, but kings and queens stayed under its roof throughout the centuries. According to Historic Environment Scotland, ‘the bishops of Moray may have established their residence at Spynie in the late 1100s. Around 1207, Bishop Brice chose the church of Spynie as his cathedral. His successor, Bishop Andrew, built a new cathedral in Elgin, but the bishops still lived at Spynie.’
The palace's mighty David’s Tower is the largest tower house by volume to survive in Scotland. First and foremost, it is a strong-house, designed for defence. After all, bishops used to be wealthy noblemen with lands and property to lose. The scale of it is very impressive, and it took little imagination to picture the fighting and feasting which may have gone on here. I took some photographs of the coats of arms of all three bishops who contributed to building the tower house: Bishop David Stewart (1462–76), Bishop William Tulloch (1477–82) and Bishop Patrick Hepburn (1538–73). Presumably they were carved in order to protect their memory for generations to come, and I am writing about them now, so it clearly worked. Bishop Patrick Hepburn was related to Bothwell, second husband to Mary, Queen of Scots, who visited often while young. Famous visitors included kings and queens: in 1362, David II fled here from Edinburgh to escape the Black Death, the plague which was tearing through the country at the time. In 1390, the notorious villain known as the 'Wolf of Badenoch' burnt most of Elgin, including its cathedral, but was warned by the king to leave the palace untouched. Destroying such a fortress was often unwise as they were expensive to rebuild. Much better if those inside were besieged until they surrendered (as happened in the Siege of Caerlaverock Castle) – then the winning side could simply move in and use the castle for themselves. Both James I and James II of Scotland took advantage of the bishops' hopitality here, too. In the latter's case, he feasted on salted Spey salmon over the Christmas period 1456-7. Perhaps most famously, Mary, Queen of Scots spent two nights here during an eventful royal progress which saw the downfall of the rebellious 4th Earl of Huntly in 1562. Even her son, James VI of Scotland, called in twice at Spynie during hunting trips.
Writing Challenge: Back to the memory of stones. Is there a stone monument or ruin near you, or one that you know well? Do you know anything of its history? Even if you don’t, you can rely on your imagination instead! Write from the perspective of the castle or monument – who has touched you, leaned against your walls, shed a quiet tear in your tower? Have you been bombarded by missiles from trebuchets? Have you seen flaming arrows rain from above? Have soldiers tried to ram your gate? Have you spotted enemies in the distance while those within your walls remained oblivious until it was too late? What creatures nest amid your cracks? What storms have battered your ramparts?
Barbara at Holyrood Palace where Mary Queen of Scots lived I am sure you won't be short of ideas. Happy writing, be it poetry or prose!

Tuesday, 4 July 2023

Britain's Brown Babies: The True Story Behind Fablehouse by E. L. Norry

Although Fablehouse is a book for 8 to 13-year-olds in the genre of magical adventure, with elements of Arthurian myth and legend, much of the story is based on a real place and a real period of social history that we haven't, traditionally, been told much about. One of my favourite things to do, creatively, is to incorporate history into the fiction I write.

Jasmine Richards (Storymix, who created the idea of Fablehouse) knew of my background when she considered me for the project. I grew up in care from the ages of 16 months until seventeen years old. I felt I had a lot in common with these children, even though I was born years later. For me, the most important aspects of a story are the characters and an emotional truth. I imagined that these brown babies would have grown up with a lack of identity, not knowing their fathers, and many probably experienced racism too. These were all aspects that I could identify with. These children had the stigma of being born illegitimate, as well as being mixed-race.

In 1941, the USA joined the Second World War because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. American GIs came over to Britain to help out, and between 1942 and 1946, millions of GIs passed through Britain. Around 240,000 of these were African-American. Troops were based all over, but perhaps part of why we don't know more about this history is because it's largely a rural one with many GIs stationed in the countryside in small towns and villages in the south and southwest of England. 

With white local women and Black GIs meeting at dances and pubs, relationships were formed, and it's estimated that 2,000 'brown babies' were the result. (In the media these children became known as 'Britain's brown babies' - the term came from the American Press). At this time, Britain was a very white country, and the majority of the population weren't familiar with people from other countries; there was a lot of racism. Due to the US army not allowing the soldiers to marry their white girlfriends, it's estimated that perhaps 1,000 of these children were given up and not raised by their own parents. And of course, the reality is that some of these women - it's been estimated up to a third - were already married. The UK government opposed any adoption attempts by Americans, including the children's own fathers. The Mixed Museum (online at is an excellent place to start if you would like to know more about this topic.

My research came from Britain's Brown Babies written in 2019 by Professor Lucy Bland. Lucy's book tells individual stories set against historical context with discussions of the common attitudes of the day, and government policies and procedures.

Fablehouse - the actual house itself - is based on Holnicote House. From 1943, Holnicote House (a National Trust property) was used as a nursery for children who'd been evacuated from cities, and then later on, Somerset County Council used it to house the brown babies. In 1948, Somerset had around 45 brown babies and half of them were sent to Holnicote House. Children stayed there until they were around five years old when they'd then be sent elsewhere.  In Lucy's book, she interviewed sixty children, five of whom used to live at Holnicote House. In reality, the house was for babies and toddlers, but obviously in my book, I've aged the children up - there wouldn't be much of an adventure if my main characters weren't able to be independent.

Now, Holnicote House is a hotel used by a company called HF who organise walking holidays. I went on a three-day trip to Selworthy in order to research the book. I wanted to walk the landscape of my characters.


1. Over the years, many of these brown babies tried to trace their fathers. As you can imagine, this is a highly emotional thing to do. 

Write a conversation, or a monologue, imagining the moment where a child and a parent meet for the first time.

2. Think about someone you know and their personality traits. Now, imagine that one of those traits becomes developed to such an extent that it could become a superpower. What might that be?

E.L Norry (Emma) writes fiction and non-fiction for children. Her first book, a commission, Son of the Circus (Scholastic, 2019) is set in Victorian times with Pablo Fanque (the first black circus owner) as inspiration, and another historical book followed with My Story: Mary Prince (Scholastic, August 2022).

Emma likes to write different styles and genres. Amber Undercover, (OUP, 2021) is a fun action-adventure spy story for 10+. She also has short stories in: Happy Here (Knights Of, 2021), The Place for Me: Stories from the Windrush (Scholastic, 2020) and The Very Merry Murder Club (Farshore, 2021). Non-fiction includes a biography of Lionel Messi (Scholastic, 2020), and Nelson Mandela (Puffin, 2020) as well as work on Black in Time with Alison Hamond (Puffin, 2022) and Where Are You Really From? with Adam Rutherford, due out September 2023. April 2022 saw her first TV screen credit with an episode of Eastenders.

Fablehouse is a two book magical adventure series. Book 1 is out now (8 June, Bloomsbury) with Book 2 due April 2024. You can buy Fablehouse here.

You can find E.L. Norry on twitter at elnorry_writer or her website

Thursday, 29 June 2023

The History of soap - from Mesopotamia to Port Sunlight by Susan Brownrigg

Who discovered soap and when isn’t known, but 3,000 years ago the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq) were using a soap solution made up of ashes and water to remove grease from wool and cloth ready for the dying process. Because of the grease on the material this created a soap which cleaned the fabric.

Ancient Roman legend tells us that the word soap came from Mount Sapo. The story says that animal fats from sacrificed beasts mixed with wood ash would be washed by rain into the Tiber River. Washer woman using the river to clean their clothes found that the sudsy river produced much cleaner clothes.

Romans would rub olive oil into their bodies to get clean, then scrape off the dirt, sweat and oil off with a special tool called a strigil.

Athletes would use strigils to remove dirt,
 dust and oil from their skin after exercise.
Strigil from Science Museum Collection.

According to Pliny the Elder in his chronicle, soap was invented by the Gauls. They used a mixture of ash and tallow (animal fat) to make hair shiny. Pliny also mentioned that Germans used a hard soap and a soft soap.

In the Middle Ages, soap was being made in Britain by craftsmen who passed their skills from father to son and master to apprentice. This soap was not for personal hygiene, but to prepare wool for dying. Bristol, Coventry and London each produced their own variety.

While, Castile, in Spain and Marseille in France, added olive oil to their soap recipes meaning their soap was of a much better quality, but expensive. Castile soap was recommended for wealthy Tudor ladies.

In one household manual adding ‘sage, marjoram, camomile, rosemary and orange peel to washing water was suggested.

Queen Elizabeth I was said to have a bath every four weeks, ‘whether it was necessary or not’!

A 15th century illustration of bathing

Soap works by lifting germs from the skin, then the water washes the germs away.

The Industrial Revolution improved the standard of living for ordinary people, they could now afford to buy decent soap and running water was common in houses.

The government wanted people to understand the importance of health and hygiene.

The Prime Minister removed the tax on soap manufacture and on paper which was wrapped around it, making it cheaper for soap companies to make very large quantities.


William Lever

One of the soap makers to take advantage of this, was William Lever. He was born in Bolton in 1851, the seventh of ten children. His father was a grocer. 

William joined the business as an apprentice, aged 16. One of his first jobs was cutting soap. At this time, soap was sold to grocers in long bars and the grocer would cut it into crude blocks, sold by weight, and wrapped in newspaper.

Cutting soap (Unilever Archives)

William became partner in the renamed Lever & Co when he was just 21. By 33 he was wealthy, but bored and he decided to focus on marketing soap.

Following an American idea, he decided to sell quality soap, cut into standard ‘tablets’ in individual packages sold under a recognisable brand name.

He leased an existing soap works in Warrington and called his new soap - Sunlight.

Sunlight soap (Author's photograph)

Sunlight soap used glycerine and vegetable fats instead of tallow which could smell bad.

The soap was very successful and soon a new, bigger soap works was needed. William Lever wanted to build a factory from scratch - and he decided on an area of marshy land criss-crossed with creeks near Birkenhead, Wirral. His plans included a purpose-built village for the workers – he named it Port Sunlight.

The village included housing, a village hall, shops, a school, a church and a girl’s hostel for the female employees who travelled from Liverpool at 5.30 am.

Today the girl's club is Port Sunlight Museum, which I visited to learn more about the history of the village.

Port Sunlight Museum (Author's photograph)

There are lots of interesting displays, including this wonderful display of soap products aimed at children. William Lever wanted brand loyalty from a young age! He gave away novelties with products and tokens you could save towards larger toys. He also liked to include images of children in his advertisements as they represented innocence and honesty. 

Soap products and novelties on display at
 Port Sunlight Museum (Author's photograph)

Port Sunlight villagers were said to have worked hard and played hard. By 1909, there were 28 clubs and societies in the village.

William Lever also created two holiday camps for his workers to visit at Thurstaston, Wirral and Rivington Pike, near Bolton.

He also built a gymnasium, and an outdoor swimming pool which used warm water from the glycerine works at Port Sunlight.

School at Port Sunlight

The first school opened in 1896 and boys and girls were taught together, with up to 50 in a class. William Lever said: "A child without education is like a worker without tools."

The factory included Number 1 soapery, a wharf and various buildings for storage and printing of packaging and advertising materials.

William Lever believed in the power of advertising - and used newspapers and railway stations to promote his products. He used catchy slogans and bright artworks and to reassure customers of the product's superiority he offered a £1000 purity guarantee!

Sunlight soap advertisement

Lever went to art exhibitions in London and bought pictures which he had copied, adding the Sunlight brand name and slogan. Art was a passion of William Lever's - and he built the Lady Lever Art Gallery, in Port Sunlight, which you can visit.

A bath tub and soap was added to this painting
to become an advertisement for Sunlight soap

To compare original paintings with the advertisements you can read this article by Liverpool Museums.

The packing of soap was done by women in the factory, they worked for 8 hours a day, standing, with only one break – an hour for lunch.

At Port Sunlight men and women had separate entrances and started their shifts at different times. They also ate in separate dining halls.

Women were paid less than men and they had to leave their job when they got married (widows could work). A married woman was expected to look after her family and keep a clean home. Company officials would check regularly to make sure their house was clean and tidy!

Only married couples could rent a cottage in the village. Each had a front garden and back yard, and they could also have use of an allotment. Any vegetables and flowers they grew could be taken home.

Today as well as enjoying a guided tour around the village, with its many different house styles you can also buy a ticket to see inside one of the worker's cottages.

William Lever was one of the first employees to bring in health and safety rules for employees and Lever Brothers had an excellent safety record. Conditions were better than at most factories, and workers got long service awards and a pension when they retired. William Lever also had a cottage hospital built in the village in 1907 and introduced a fire brigade!

You can also visit Soap Works, an interactive exhibition that looks at the science of soap.

Soap Works (Author's photograph)

The Soap Works attraction and also includes a display which explores the business operations of William Lever in the Congo, where Lever Brothers sourced palm oil for their soap. 

Display at Soap Works

William Lever planned to build an African version of Port Sunlight in Lusanga, which he renamed Leverville. He wrongly thought the British way of doing things was better for the people of Lusanga.

And while William Lever had a good reputation for looking after workers in England, the practices of the company he set up - Les Huileries du Congo Belge (HCB) did not match this. Indeed HCB forced labourers to work against their will and for very little pay. 

Port Sunlight Village Trust continues to explore this troubling area of William Lever's life.

In 1906 William Lever became an MP, in his maiden speech he urged the government to copy the old age pension plans he had created for his workers.

William Lever was made a Baronet in 1911, becoming Sir William, and Elizabeth became Lady Lever. She died suddenly in 1913, so when he was made a Baron in 1917 and then a Viscount in 1922, he combined his own name with his late wife’s maiden name to create the title ‘Leverhulme’.

He died in 1925 and his tomb can be seen at Christ Church, Port Sunlight.

Lord Leverhulme's tomb in Port Sunlight (Author's photograph)


Taking inspiration from William Lever, who was a big believer in the power of advertising I would like you to write your own advertisement!

It can be for soap - even Sunlight soap - or for any household object, perhaps a favourite toy! You might like to make up some outlandish claims for what wonderful things your product will do for customers - will it make them super popular, send them into space or something else! You can be as outrageous as you like!

Susan Brownrigg is a Lancashire lass and the author of three historical children's books for ages 8+ - Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest & Gracie Fairshaw and the Trouble at the Tower are seaside mysteries set in Blackpool. Kintana and the Captain's Curse is a pirate adventure set in Madagascar.

Susan's books are published by Uclan Publishing. 


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