to Isle of Wight History Centre Archive of Monthly News Items
As previously featured in the History Centre

April - June 2008

April 2008
It is unknown how many of these instruments still exist, or even how many were originally made. Attention has recently been drawn to one serving as a memorial in a local cemetery, complete with inscribed dedication. As yet there appears to be no record of any others on the Island.
  The heliochronometer is essentially a highly sophisticated sundial. It arose out of the need for accurate timekeeping to meet railway timetables. A sundial was critical because it determined time, whereas clocks merely attempted to keep time. Greenwich Mean Time was legally established throughout the land in 1880, leaving some a little confused at the concept of two different middays: one on their sundial and one by government edict (Island hill farmers probably missed many a train in the early days). The heliochronometer was not only more accurate than a regular sundial, to within a minute, but it also automatically adjusted to standard time. Some have described it as a form of analogue computer.
  Railway stations naturally had clocks but they couldn't keep accurate time over days and had to be regularly reset. The larger stations could get a time check via their telegraph system. It was to meet the need of other stations that, in 1904, George Gibbs developed his heliochronometer. He started production in partnership with William Pilkington. There is no record of how many were made. The serial number of each unit was stamped on the base and numbers so far discovered suggest production may have barely reached a thousand. Unfortunately the number on ours is no longer legible. The problem of accurate nationwide timekeeping was ultimately solved when the BBC started broadcasting the time signal in 1924.
  Each unit had to be carefully set up, relative to its longitude and latitude. Thereafter operation was fairly straightforward. Heliochronometers are still produced today. A series of pages here shows how they work.

May 2008
The story of Dorothy O'Grady, the Sandown landlady convicted of spying during WW2, has always been rather sketchy, largely because both her trial and appeal were held in secret. It has now emerged her Home Office file was declassified in 2006 but, shortly afterwards, declared lost.
  Improbable though it may seem, a quiet, unassuming housewife running a small boarding house in Sandown became the only woman sentenced to death for spying in Britain during World War 2. Dorothy O'Grady's sentence was commuted to 14 years imprisonment on appeal. What little has been written about her creates the impression of an eccentric loner rather than a recruited agent. Most writers claim she had no contact with German intelligence or any accomplice, and was more of an amateur snoop and petty saboteur than a serious spy. The problem with this characterisation is that it doesn't really account for the severity of her initial sentence. One writer suggests a political motivaton, claiming she was an Irish radical and sending notes to an address in Portugal. Unfortunately his source cannot be verified.
  It had naturally been assumed that much would be revealed when her file was declassified. It was finally released at the National Archives in January 2006. A few weeks later, on the 23rd February, the Home Office recalled the file from the archive 'in the conduct of official business'. Six months later, when National Archives requested return of the file, the Home Office said it could no longer be traced. It seems unlikely any member of the public got to see the documents in the brief period they were available. This unfortunate situation only came to light last month when a researcher asked to view the file.
  Dorothy O'Grady came to the notice of the authorities in 1940 when she was seen regularly walking her dog around a prohibited area at Culver. The frequency and pattern of these walks was enough to prompt British intelligence to closely monitor her activities thereafter, including interception of her mail. There is little detail available as to exactly what their continued observation revealed. She is said to have taken a number of different Island walks in sensitive areas, where she was observed making notes and sketches. It is also claimed that, when finally arrested, a search uncovered important documents, yet it's difficult to imagine how such a person could have acquired crucial material. Her husband was a retired fireman and had volunteered for fire fighting amongst the air raids on London, apparently oblivious to her counter activities.
  When she was caught cutting a military telephone line it seems to have forced the hand of the security service. She was charged with the relatively minor offence of being in a prohibited area and put on remand pending the hearing, presumably to give time for further charges to be raised. Inexplicably she was granted bail. The folly of this became evident when she vanished. There was some initial concern that she had managed to get off the Island, but she was eventually discovered living under an assumed name in Yarmouth. A charge of spying followed shortly afterwards.
   Dorothy O'Grady's activities, motivation and personality all still remain much of a mystery. The story of one of the Island's most notorious residents seems to have been lost to Home Office negligence, although conspiratorialists may read more into it. A Freedom of Information request has been lodged with the Home Office to try and retrieve any internal memoranda referring to the files but it's not expected to reveal much.

June 2008
The fact that cement has been the dominant material in modern architecture and construction must dictate that its pioneering development represents a critical piece of industrial history. Yet the subject has received little attention in the field of industrial archaeology, and hardly any structures remain to represent the variety of manufacturing processes. The Island's own cement chamber kiln is one the few early structures still existing. Unfortunately it's now destined to vanish into an undergrowth that will likely prevent any future analysis of how it worked.
chamber kiln
  When Charles Francis & Son established their cement plant around the old West Medina mill in the early 1840s, the cement of today had yet to be developed, and the firing process was limited to bottle kilns. The invention of the 'Johnson' chamber kiln in 1870 considerably increased capacity by speeding up the drying process. Improved variations on this design were subsequently patented, while the number of firing units within a single structure was progressively increased. Chamber kilns were succeeded by rotary kilns in the early 20th century.
  The chamber kiln on the Medina site is thought to be one of only two examples remaining in the country, both in a dilapidated state. The other example, in Kent, is of a known design, whereas the Island structure cannot be fully explained, at least not without some excavation. The main east-west section seems to represent the original Johnson chamber kiln layout, apparently initially brick-built but subsequently enlarged with concrete. The puzzling element involves a series of firing units along the south side. These cannot yet be explained in relation to the rest of the structure. In the 1870s a young engineer, Vitale de Michele, was the driving force in developing the company's industrial processes. Michele eventually patented his own variation on the Johnson kiln, so it's not beyond the realms of possibility that the unique layout of the Medina kiln formed part of his experiments.
  Ironically it's the 'preservation' of the Medina kiln that's likely to put it beyond future excavation. As long as it had public access it was kept relatively clear. Now that it's contained within an ecological site it has already become heavily overgrown, with some of its more subtle features no longer visible. The kiln has been included in the 'Local List' but this appears to have no bearing on its future.
  The local authority's approach to the kiln cannot be expected to do more than reflect a national indifference towards this forgotten industry. There is virtually no professional expertise they can call upon. The Museum of London Archaeology Service were commissioned to carry out a survey of the structure but, although they studiously recorded the build, their lack of experience in the subject resulted in confused terminology and interpretation. Understandably, they made no attempt to explain how the kiln worked. The nation's heritage institutions were latecomers to industrial archaeology. In the case of the cement industry, they were simply too late.