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Saturday 24 November 2012


In 2011, Hamden Gurney Church of England Primary School was named State Primary School of the Year. (Friends and family will share my mild pride that Bearsden Academy was Best Scottish State Secondary School the same year.) Hampden Gurney’s fortunes have been transformed over the last fifteen years by Evelyn Chua, a head teacher with vision. In 1997 when she took over it was struggling to attract pupils and teachers, and occupying a dilapidated set of buildings. Chua has created a library of 11,000 books for her pupils where once there was only a bookcase, housed in a remarkable new school building opened in 2002. If ever there was an argument for the value of libraries, it is that in the five years leading up to the 2011 award, every single one of Hampden Gurney’s children has reached the required standard in national tests.

Hampden Gurney School
new building designed by the  RDP architectural practice
and shortlisted for the 2002 Stirling Prize

The school was established in 1863 in memory of the Reverend John Hampden Gurney, a first cousin of my great great grandmother. He died the year before of typhoid, and had made enough of a mark in life not only to have a school named after him but to receive a character sketch in a religious magazine sixteen years after his death. Sunday At Home in its 26th April 1879 edition described him as “a blunt, impassioned preacher [who] offended some of wealth and power.” I like him already.

Hampden, as he was known, trained and practiced in the legal profession but withdrew from it to become a clergyman. He was the curate of St Mary’s Church at Lutterworth in Leicestershire for fifteen years before returning to his birthplace, London, to take up the post of prebendary at St Paul’s Cathedral. He was a committed supporter of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, an evangelical agency of the Church of England in the mould of the more nonconformist Religious Tract Society. During his time at St Paul’s he founded the Scripture Reader’s Society.

He was appointed rector of St Mary’s Marylebone, and his experience of inner city life during his tenure there prompted him to write pamphlets in support of the Poor Law and of church reform. Although he was himself a member of the establishment church, his family’s long history of non-conformity as Quakers and Baptists over many generations before him must have nurtured his tendency to iconoclasm. Hampden also published three volumes of sermons, two collections of hymns (known as the Lutterworth and Marylebone Collections) which included some of his own compositions, and several historical biographies.

Hampden Gurney School’s original building of 1863
(photographed c1982)

The school which carries his name moved to its present location in Nutford Place off the Edgware Road in 1967 when the then new school building, erected to replace one destroyed during the Blitz, was officially opened by the future poet laureate John Betjeman. The school originally stood on nearby Hampden Gurney Street, a road presumably laid out in 1863 when they built the school. 

There were two classrooms on the ground floor and three upstairs. That first building is demolished now, but after the school vacated it, it had an interesting series of occupants from the creative industries. It became a film production centre and a photographic studio, and in 1975 the upper floor was rented by an emerging young composer and former member of Greek pop group Aphrodite’s Child – Vangelis.

 China and the Blade Runner soundtrack
two of many Vangelis albums recorded at his Nemo Studios in Hampden Gurney Street

As Nemo Studios it was Vangelis’s recording base for the next 13 years and the birthplace of all his early triumphs – his solo albums including Albedo 0.39 and Beaubourg (and my favourite China); his three albums in collaboration with Jon Anderson; and the film soundtracks for which he is perhaps best known. Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and many other scores were all written and recorded in the upstairs classrooms of Hampden Gurney Anglican School.

Before and after Hampden Gurney’s death, his own family was dogged by tragedy which you can read about elsewhere in this blog. His wife Maria Grey died in childbirth in 1857. Three of his daughters drowned in a boating accident on the River Nile. And his son Edmund became embroiled in an exploration of the possibility of life after death which, one feels, would have appalled Edmund’s clerical father.

The dedication to Hampden Gurney in its original position beside the Boy’s Entrance to the school in Hampden Gurney Street; the panel now hangs in the new school building in Nutford Place

Saturday 17 November 2012


I was musing earlier this year about non-genetic disposition – in the case of some of my Protestant Irish ancestors, their tendency to be assassinated. It’s that old question of nature versus nurture: obviously assassination is not genetic, but the behaviour which leads to it may be inherited, just as a man may mistreat his wife because he learned that behaviour from his father. I find a more noble example of nurture, of imparted behaviour repeating itself across the generations, in my cousin G.G.M. Wheeler.

Major George Godfrey Massy Wheeler was the grandson of Major General Hugh Massy Wheeler of Cawnpore. Cawnpore became the rallying cry of British troops fighting back against the Indian Rebellion of 1857, after the town was the scene of a long siege and short but ruthless massacre. Hugh Wheeler was the officer commanding the town when Indian troops under his command rose up and besieged the British civilian and military population. Hugh was forced to accept an untrustworthy promise of safe passage as conditions worsened in the British garrison, and led the survivors of the siege to awaiting boats at the river’s edge, where they were treacherously slaughtered.

Major General Hugh Massy Wheeler of Cawnpore (1789-1857)

The major-general, his wife, a son and a daughter all died in the Cawnpore Massacre, along with another cousin of mine, Captain Robert Urquhart Jenkins, and 890 others of the 900 British in the town. Whatever you think of British imperialism, Wheeler conducted himself with noble dignity in an unwinnable situation. His actions became a by-word for bravery among the ranks of the Indian Army, in which in time both his son General George Wheeler and his grandson George Godfrey Massy Wheeler served.

In April 1917 G.G.M. Wheeler found himself part of a British force of 7000 encamped at Shaiba, southwest of Basra in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). War had broken out in the region largely to protect the interests of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and now the Allies (represented principally by elements of the Indian Army) were ranged against the regular and irregular forces of the Ottoman Empire.

Major George Godfrey Massy Wheeler of Shaiba (1873-1915)

On 12th April 18,000 Ottoman troops attacked the British camp. They were repulsed, and in a heroic counter-attack Wheeler led out the cavalry in an attempt to capture an enemy flag. As he withdrew, the entrenched Ottoman forces emerged and pursued his men across open ground, where British artillery were able to inflict heavy losses.

The following day, unfortunately, his confidence having been boosted by the previous evening’s success, he tried the same manoeuvre in a different part of the battlefield. Fired up, he rode off towards the enemy’s standards, but soon outstripped his men. Too far ahead of them to call on their support when he got into trouble, he was killed; and without his leadership, the attack failed.

An Indian cavalryman of the 7th Hariana Lancers, the troops commanded by Major G.G.M. Wheeler

Elsewhere, the Arab irregulars who made up the vast majority of the Ottoman force were scattered by British counter-offensives. The remaining Ottoman troops regrouped in a strong defensive position overnight and by 4pm on the 14th April British soldiers were running out of water and bullets with little to show for their efforts. It was a surprising bayonet charge by the Dorsetshire Regiment which turned the tables, restoring British energy and confidence for one last assault on the Ottoman positions. 

Perhaps their do-or-die spirit was inspired by Wheeler's earlier actions. The Ottoman troops crumbled and fled the battlefield in what proved to be a turning point in the Mesopotamian campaign – it gave Britain the initiative once more and discouraged Arab alliance with the Ottoman Empire. Wheeler was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the highest British award for military gallantry, for his deeds and example. His grandfather (who died before the introduction of the VC) would have been proud.

Having set out to tell the simple tale of a grandson like his grandfather, I promptly found that G.G.M. Wheeler is not the only Wheeler recipient of the Victoria Cross. Maj George Campbell Wheeler (1880-1938), also serving in the Indian Army, won one in 1917 for another action in Mesopotamia. I cannot so far uncover their relationship, but there must be one. Perhaps they were siblings, and perhaps G.C. Wheeler learned HIS bravery from the example of his older brother G.G.M. Wheeler.

Saturday 10 November 2012


I’ve been contributing quite a lot of material to a new book which is published this month on 12th November, Classic Rock Posters by Dennis Loren and Mick Farren. It tells the history of rock and roll through the posters that announced it, and there’s some great artwork in its pages (also available in French and Italian, I believe – a great Christmas present!).

Austin Cooper (1890-1964)

Working on it earlier this year reminded me of my poster-designing ancestor Austin Cooper, about whose career I’ve written here before. He worked mainly for public transport companies – the London and North Eastern Railway, and the London Underground. The work usually took the form of a particular series, a particular marketing angle, for example a set of posters for market towns or for destinations with a literary connection.

  London Underground’s 1928 poster campaign focused on sections within museums

On at least three separate occasions the Underground asked him to deliver campaigns encouraging the use of the Tube to travel to London’s world-class collection of museums. In 1928 and 1932 Cooper highlighted particular collections within each featured museum, while in 1930 he devoted an entire series to one institution, the British Museum.

London Underground’s 1930 British Museum campaign highlighted the very unBritishness of its internationally sourced artifacts

It’s interesting to see the development of his style over the four or five years represented by the campaigns. At LNER he succeeded the artist Noel Rooke, who is credited with reintroducing the woodcut as a graphic style, something clearly visible in Austin Cooper’s own early work and still apparent in some of these museum designs.

London Underground’s 1932 poster campaign once again featured a number of museums for which Cooper emphasised particular aspects

Austin was a master of the typeface too. By the Second World War he had tired of commercial commissions and concentrated on fine art for the remainder of his career. But Cooper's contributions to poster art through his work, his teaching and his text book remain highly influential today.

Saturday 3 November 2012


“Chum” isn’t a word you see in print very often. But there it is in the Ayrshire Post’s report of the funeral of Hugh Piper, my grandmother’s distant cousin. “Lance-Corporal Haswell, a chum of the deceased” broke the news to Hugh’s parents, and accompanied the coffin on its procession from church to cemetery.

My Piper line’s origins are in Ayrshire in southwest Scotland. Although my grandmother’s branch had migrated to the capital, Edinburgh, most had stayed in the area. It was Hugh’s father who brought his branch from its rural roots into Ayr, the county town. There, by 1901 and aged 16, he had a job as an apprentice coach painter with the newly established Ayr Tramway Company. It was a steady, secure, respectable job and four years later Hugh married an Ayr mill-worker, Sarah McConnachie. 

An Ayr Corporation Tramcar, 
probably painted and driven by Hugh Piper;
Trams ran in Ayr from 1901 to 1931. 

Over the next nine years they had six children, the last two – twins – born in May 1914 just two months before the outbreak of the First World War. Hugh had just turned 29. With a large family and good employment prospects with the town corporation, where he was now a tram driver, Hugh was in no hurry to volunteer to fight. Indeed, the rush to enlist nationally was so great that there was no shortage of soldiers to send to the front.

But as the number of dead began to soar, volunteers became thinner on the ground. Britain was running out of cannon fodder and in January 1916 conscription of men aged 18 to 41 was introduced. At first only single men were called up, but the new compulsory enlistment failed to solve the problem. There was soon a huge backlog of appeals by men seeking exemption on the grounds of conscientious objection, health or employment in civilian occupations essential to the war effort. Running the trams did not fall in any of those categories. In May 1916 conscription was extended to married men; Hugh did not immediately receive his papers, but in due course he joined the 4th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers.

 Carriages and engine heading downhill from Catterick Camp 
(photo taken in 1950s)

He was not alone, and many of his chums at the tram depot went off with him to their basic training at Catterick Army Camp in North Yorkshire. When their training was complete in September 1917 they were allowed home on leave before being sent off to war. They marched up from the camp to its railway station at 3.30am on 15th September, where their carriages (not yet hitched to an engine) were waiting. In his letter to Hugh’s parents, his chum William Haswell takes up the story:

“We had some time to wait. I spoke to Hughie as we were sitting on our kitbags together – little did we know it was for the last time. Hugh got into No. 1 carriage, and just as I was about to climb into mine the carriages began to move, and I slipped off again until the train would stop.

“But it did not stop, and some of us were left standing, hoping there would not be an accident. We waited in suspense until the sergeant came back and reported that the carriages had overturned and many were hurt. A party set off at once. I was one of them, and we met two men walking back with bandaged hands. It was a dreadful scene. When we got there the carriages were in all positions, some right over with their wheels in the air, and others smashed to matchwood.

“I asked people if they had seen Hughie, but no one had. The first man I saw was Donald Hogg, and he had been helped out of the debris. He was cut about the head and body, but able to walk. Then I met Aitken, his face cut and covered with blood. Neither had seen Hughie.

“Later, I saw some men take someone from underneath the carriage and carry him to a wooden hut. I went with an officer to see if it was one of the men from my platoon. When they removed the coats, I saw the back of his head. ‘My God,’ I said, ‘is it Piper?’ Then the next thing I remember was the officer saying, ‘Come away old chap, we can do no good.’ Hughie must have been killed instantaneously.”

Lance Corporal Hugh Piper (1885-1917)

Four men died in the accident, and at least two of Piper’s and Haswell’s Ayr tramway colleagues – Hogg and Aitken – were injured. An inquest into why the brakes of the carriages had not been applied that night could only guess that escaped German prisoners of war might be to blame. The weight of the men boarding the wagons had been enough to send them on their way down the steep incline which led away from the platform, until, travelling at over 60 miles an hour, they came to a curve and derailed.

The route of Hugh’s last journey was lined by thousands of Ayr citizens. It followed the tramline which Hugh himself once drove. Mourners including his chum and his father went either on foot or in a heavily draped Ayr Corporation tramcar which followed the cortege. Hugh’s coffin was accompanied by the brass band of the Royal Scots Fusiliers and a funeral party of his military colleagues, who fired three volleys at the graveside before sounding the Last Post. He was, reported the Ayrshire Post, most popular and highly esteemed by all who knew him.
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