Wednesday 27 September 2023

Historic beasts and where to find them by Ally Sherrick

Since my first published children’s book, Black Powder, I have always included an heroic – and sometimes downright mischievous – animal sidekick in my stories. In Black Powder, about two children caught up in the Gunpowder Plot, my hero Tom has a white pet mouse called Jago. Since then I’ve included a dog, a raven, a monkey and a wolf in other stories. And I’ve created two new animal heroes in my current historical work in progress, though I’m not quite ready to reveal their identities yet!

An early favourite: Dippy the dinosaur in his original home at the Natural History Museum, London

My own earliest memorable brush with an historic beast was a visit to the Natural History Museum in London and a meeting with Dippy the Diplodocus, who in the past few years has been making a grand tour of the UK and thrilling visitors young and old wherever he – or she? – lands. Dippy, as I later discovered, is a composite of many rather than one individual dinosaur’s bones, and also a cast taken from the ‘original’ Dippy housed in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, USA. But whatever its origins, it still has the power to excite young imaginations, as it did for me.

Other actual remains of creatures from the past which have intrigued and wowed me in equal measure over the years include the mummified cats on display in the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum, a plaster-cast taken from the remains of a dog caught in the ash flow of the devastating eruption of Vesuvius at Pompeii complete with its collar, and the skeletons of eleven horses buried with their presumed royal owner in a Viking-age ship burial at Ladby in Denmark in the early tenth century.

Mummified cats in case at British Museum
Petrified dog from Pompeii excavations

Gallery with remains of Ladby Viking Ship

The Ladby Viking Ship which contained the remains of eleven dead horses

In addition to the remains of real live – or perhaps we should say ‘real dead’ – creatures that have come down to us from the past, the evidence of people’s passion for, and fear of animals throughout time is all around us, and across all cultures too.
For example, I love this mosaic of beasts fighting in the gladiatorial arena from a Roman villa in Cyprus. In fact, I used such scenes as part of my research into my Roman-set story Vita and the Gladiator in which my heroes, Vita and Brea are pitted against their own fierce animal combatants.

Photo: Catherine Randall

Medieval gargoyles on the outside of church towers and walls are also a favourite. I always look up before going inside to see if I can spot these strange, often nightmarish creatures created by medieval stonemasons, including this one of a devil or imp on St Peter’s Church in the Cotswolds town of Winchcombe. The word ‘gargoyle’ comes from the Old French word gargouille, meaning ‘throat’ and describes their practical function as waterspouts diverting rainwater from the roof. But historians believed they may also have served as charms to keep evil spirits away, or as a method of warning parishioners against committing sins.

Gargoyle of imp or devil on St. Peter's Church, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

And of course real and fantastical animals are often included in tapestries, on coats of arms and in sculptures and paintings too. For example I was lucky enough a little while ago to see the exquisite Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

This series of wall-hangings was woven in around 1500, probably in the South Netherlands, and is believed to have been a wedding gift destined to be hung in the happy couple’s bedchamber. The tapestries tell the story of the taming of the mythical unicorn – whose horn was believed to have magical properties to detect poison and purify water. But they also depict many recognisable real-life birds and animals including pheasants, ducks, rabbits and lions.

And on another holiday, this time to the city of Bangkok in Thailand, I visited the beautiful Buddhist temple of Wat Arun, home to many amazing sculptures including this one of the deity Indra on his three-headed elephant.

Meanwhile, the image of a monkey in a painting of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of the Tudor King Henry VIII, helped inspire the creation of Pepin the monkey in my own story The Queen’s Fool. I knew that monkeys in those times were kept as pets by the nobility in grand houses in England and Europe. But they would have seemed strange to ordinary folk, especially my hero, Cat Sparrow, who has grown up in the enclosed world of a nunnery. When she first encounters him, she mistakes Pepin – or Pippo as she prefers to call him – for some kind of giant spider. Understandable if you’ve never seen a monkey before!

Animals also make a frequent appearance on items of jewellery, clothing and even armour throughout history. While studying medieval history at university I learned about the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. I was fascinated to discover that many of the treasures buried with King Raedwald whose monument it’s believed to be, depicted creatures both real and imaginary. I’ve talked in another TimeTunnellers post about the Anglo-Saxons’ passion for dragons, the most striking examples of which are on the warrior’s helmet included in the burial. But there were also stunning depictions of wolves and eagles – two of the so-called ‘beasts of battle’ – on other items including the king’s purse and shield mounts.

The Sutton Hoo helmet with a pair of decorative dragons - spot a set of wings over the eyebrows

And from a completely different culture - South America this time - this beautiful gold frog pendant. It was made somewhere between the 8th and 16th centuries and may have been a totem, a sacred object representative of a spirit being with supernatural powers.

But perhaps my favourite representations of animals and birds in the past are in the illuminated manuscripts produced by monks in the scriptoria, or writing rooms, of medieval monasteries. The illustrations included in the copies of holy texts they made – including the beautiful early 15th century Sherborne Missal now in the British Library – were often both a celebration of the natural world and a very human testament to their vivid imaginations and colourful sense of humour. A form of escape perhaps from the bleak conditions they were working in sat at their desks in those cold and draughty monastery buildings.

I love the little snail perched on the gloved hand of the hare in this illumination

Best of all, are the illuminated texts known as bestiaries. A bestiary was a compendium of beasts, with illustrations of animals and an accompanying description of their natural history and which usually included a moral message for the reader – mainly monks and clerics – drawn from the beast’s assigned religious meaning. They were first produced by ancient Greek scholars, but versions of them became increasingly popular during the Middle Ages, especially in England and France.

Pages from the Aberdeen Bestiary - created in England circa 1200

Bestiaries included both beasts that existed – for example pelicans, lions, bears and wild boars – and ones – spoiler alert! – such as griffins, unicorns, dragons and basilisks that didn’t. But no distinction about whether they were real or imagined was made in the entry.

A Pelican feeding her young with her own blood. The bird is real but the behaviour is not

There’s some debate among academics today about whether medieval people really believed the more fantastical ones actually existed or else accepted that they had been created for teaching purposes. But either way, many of these amazing beasts have found their way into fantasy stories and films of more modern times including works like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series and its spin-offs to name but a few.

Writing Challenge

Pick your own favourite real-life animal and taking inspiration from imaginary creatures in the past, with a wave of your pen transform it into a fantastical creature to include in your own 21st century bestiary. What sort of additional physical features will you give it to make it suitably weird and wonderful? Where does it live? What does it eat and drink? What sort of noise does it make when it’s happy, or angry? What special powers might it have? Write a few paragraphs describing it. And don’t forget to include a drawing of it too!


Ally Sherrick is the award-winning author of stories full of history, mystery and adventure.

BLACK POWDER, her debut novel about a boy caught up in the Gunpowder Plot, won the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award. Other titles include THE BURIED CROWN, a wartime tale with a whiff of Anglo-Saxon myth and magic and THE QUEEN’S FOOL, a story of treachery and treason set at the court of King Henry VIII. Ally’s latest book with Chicken House Books, is VITA AND THE GLADIATOR, the story of a young girl’s fight for justice in the high-stakes world of London’s gladiatorial arena.

For more information about Ally and her books visit You can also follow her on Twitter @ally_sherrick

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.

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