20 November 2012

Ford's Pension Scheme


Ford’s Hospital, in Greyfriars Lane, Coventry, was founded by the merchant William Ford in 1509. The almshouses originally accommodated five men and one woman. In 1517 further endowments extended the provision to shelter for six couples.


One William Wigston provided a yet further endowment in 1529 to provide for another five couples. This makes Ford’s unusual, in that very many almshouses provide for twelve aged persons or couples. Over 500 years later, the almshouses still fulfil their original function.


Coventry was very heavily bombed during WWII, and on the night of 14 October 1940 the almshouses were hit by a single bomb that killed six residents, the warden, and a nurse. The building was severely damaged, one whole bay being destroyed, but restored 1951-53, using salvaged materials where possible.

15 November 2012

Llangollen Motor Museum

About a mile outside Llangollen is an eponymous motor museum that is a delightfully eclectic collection of about 60 cars, a greater number of motorbikes, and various petrol pumps, cans, enamel signs, automobile-related ephemera, pedal cars, vintage radios, and various curiosities.

Amongst the cars are the first production Gilbern GT, of 1961 (below), and a fine pair of Triumph Vitesses (top). Gilbern, 1959 to 1973, remains the only production car to have been made in Wales. Amongst the curiosities is what's reputed to be the oldest motor-drawn caravan in Britain, home-built in 1908 by an amateur artist for use on his painting trips.

10 November 2012

Enigma Variations

The Enigma machine, available on the open market from 1919 as a means for organisations such as banks to encipher confidential information, was not a commercial success, and was withdrawn from sale in 1933. By 1926 however it had been adapted by the German government for military purposes, initially for the Navy, but later for all three services, in progressively more advanced forms.

Enigma converted plain-text into cipher-text by means of letter key depressions closing switches, completing circuits, and lighting lamps, one for each letter of the alphabet. The enciphering was achieved by virtue of the circuits being completed through the medium of a plug-board and three (selected from five, from December 1938) rotors each with 26 contacts per side. The contacts were connected internally such that, as the rotors turned, the completed circuits were different for every key depression. The different electrical circuit configurations numbered 158,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Polish Intelligence made the first inroads into breaking Enigma-coded messages, and Bletchley Park first broke into German Enigma ciphers in January 1940. Manual techniques however were outstripped by increasingly complex German military set-up routines for the machines. Alan Turing, a brilliant Cambridge mathematician, set about developing a machine to work out the relevant rotor, ring, plug-board and message selections and settings that would not be thrown by further German operational changes.

The Bombe, named after an earlier Polish machine used in de-encryption called the Bomba, itself reputedly named after an ice-cream, was built in just nine months and ready by March 1940. The machine made use of a 'crib', a known correspondence between a piece of cipher-text and the original plain-text, worked out from study of stereotyped messages, for example those commencing, "Weather report." In essence, the Bombe, each vertical set of three drums representing an Enigma machine (top), 'tested' the menus that were plugged up on the back of the machine (above) to reflect the crib.

A rotor order was chosen and an input letter selected. The Bombe worked through each possible rotor set-up, stopping each time a logical partner letter to the input letter was found. The resultant partial keys were tested on a Typex machine, modified to replicate an Enigma, to see whether the cipher-text would produce segments of German plain-text. Gradually, the rotor settings would be determined, such that ultimately all messages using that day's key could be decoded. Each day, the process had to start again.

At Bletchley Park, central to all this activity, is a fully working reconstruction of a Bombe. Entirely electro-mechanical, the machine is essentially a massive system of relays, emulating the rotor systems of 36 Enigmas. The design was continually improved, and by 1945 216 machines of various types were in use in the UK. Run 24 hours a day, without downtime for maintenance despite their 350 lubrication points (third photograph), the Bombes were incredibly robust. And proved absolutely vital to the war effort.

05 November 2012

Lewes Bonfire 2012

Bonfire has its origins in the celebrations that take place across the land to mark the ‘exposure’ of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, although aspects of the event are likely grounded in Samhain, the Gaelic marking of the commencement of winter. It is now always held on 5 November, unless this is a Sunday, in which case it is advanced a day, but the roots of Bonfire lie in riotous events of no fixed point in the calendar.

These were suppressed by Oliver Cromwell, but reappeared upon the Restoration. The celebrations faded towards the end of the eighteenth century, yet grew once more in the 1820s. In 1847 the Riot Act was read to the bonfire boys, who were banished to Wallands Park, then outside the town. They returned to march through the town again in 1850, in response to a Papal Bull asserting the re-establishment of a Catholic hierarchy in England.

In order to preserve the ability to march in the town, the bonfire boys capitulated, and organised so as to control riotous behaviour. Lewes (now Borough) Bonfire Society and Cliffe Bonfire Society – Cliffe was then a separate borough – both formed in 1853. There are now seven Lewes bonfire societies, six of which process with flaming torches through the town on the same night.

Each society parades through its own quarter, and all bar Cliffe and South Street then march down the High Street. The five principal societies make, from wire and papier-mâché, a tableau reflecting topical dislikes, in most cases processed through the town before heading for destruction at the relevant bonfire and firework site. The societies return to their headquarters for bonfire prayers, broadsides against authority and current bogey-men.

Bonfire is a tradition, but a flexible one. Those parading wear either smuggler outfits – banded Guernseys, a different colour combination for each society, and white trousers – or ‘pioneer’ costumes, including Vikings and Moors for Cliffe, Zulus and Tudors for Borough. Since 1858 Bonfire has also commemorated the Lewes Martyrs, 17 Protestants burnt at the stake between 1555 and 1557. In more recent times its purpose has been extended to honour those killed in war, the processions halting at the town’s war memorial.