Michael Portillo discovers the birthplace of British aviation in Bristol and prepares an Airbus 380 for a smooth landing at Filton.
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For Edwardian Britons,
a Bradshaw's was an indispensable guide
to a railway network at its peak.
I'm using an early 20th-century edition to navigate a vibrant and
at the height of its power and influence in the world.
But a nation wrestling with political,
social and industrial unrest at home.
My journey continues from South Wales
towards the west of England.
Today, I want to look at three developments
before the First World War that were to transform society.
They are represented in history by three sets of siblings -
the Lumiere brothers in France,
the Wright brothers in the United States
and the Pankhurst sisters in the United Kingdom.
Cinema, aviation and votes for women.
I began in West Wales,
skirting the coast to make my way through the industrial core
of South Wales and the nation's capital. Heading east,
I'll cross the Severn Estuary into England,
to uncover pioneering Edwardian technology
which led Britons to take to the skies.
I'll continue my journey
through the heart of the West Country,
to finish in Cornwall.
This leg of my travels begins in the Welsh city of Newport and continues
to the birthplace of British aviation at Filton, in England.
I'll uncover an enlightened place of refuge in Bath.
And take in a movie on the Bristol Channel.
On this journey, a cinematic experience hits a high note.
That's absolutely brilliant.
This is Mary.
I learn about the fight for female emancipation.
How do you feel about those women, those suffragettes?
They knew what they wanted and, in the end, they got it, didn't they?
And prepare for a smooth landing.
The toilets are no longer in use.
Cabin crew, resume your seats, please.
Oh! That is amazing.
Coal was big business in South Wales,
and there were fortunes to be made.
Cardiff docks were transformed,
Barry Port was created out of nothing,
and at my next stop, Newport,
entrepreneurs wanted to enter the hectic competition.
But on July the 10th, 1909, dock disaster, many workmen killed.
It seemed that the fortunes of the few could entail
the misfortunes of the many.
I am midway on my journey through Wales and England's West Country.
Newport was the first stop
on Isambard Kingdom Brunel's South Wales Railway
from Chepstow to Swansea,
which opened in 1850 and became key
to exploiting the region's coalfields.
In a strategic position, near the mouth of the River Usk,
Newport was built on a rich,
2,000-year history of international maritime trade.
I am taking to the water to learn more...
..with Rod Lewis from Associated British Ports.
Rod, what about the port of Newport today, what does it do?
We still do some coal,
we do a lot of steel, import and export, project cargoes -
-for example, railway locomotives.
The ports are well connected, so you can bring a locomotive in,
alongside the quay, and put it straight onto rail.
Newport's first dock opened in 1842.
Today, the docks handle one and a half million tonnes
of commodities every year
and enclose a body of water that covers 125 acres.
The tide here is tremendous.
It is, yeah. It is the second largest tidal range in the world.
But because the range is so great,
it actually affords us water for deep drafted vessels
to get this far up the estuary.
By 1914, Newport was shipping over 6 million tonnes of coal annually.
The city owed its success
to an extraordinary feat of engineering,
which became famous for both horror and heroism.
Historian Tom Dart is at the bow.
Tom, we have a great view here of this great lock.
I would imagine, even at the beginning of the 20th century,
this is still a site of mass labour.
There was very little mechanical help in those days.
All the digging, in fact, was done by hand.
Tell me about what happened on that dreadful day in 1909.
Well, the men were just working on the trench,
digging this lock here behind us.
And at about five o'clock in the afternoon, rumblings were heard
and movement was spotted.
Some men managed to scramble up,
but over 40 men were trapped
when the dock wall collapsed into the dock.
So, this massive timber collapses with men trapped underneath.
-What could be done?
-Not a lot, actually,
because they were all big burly fellows,
and there wasn't enough space to get down there. So,
they decided that a small man was needed,
and a young lad called Tom Toya Lewis,
who was 17 at the time,
volunteered to go down, and he was lowered down
about 30ft on a rope,
down to a chap called Fred Bardill,
who had been trapped by his arm,
and then the timbers started to move again,
and Tom Toya was hauled out.
Fortunately, Fred Bardill had been freed enough that he was able to be
pulled out. 39 men were killed in the end,
and some of them were drowned,
unfortunately, with the tide coming in.
And was Tom Toya Lewis recognised for his terrific bravery?
He was, yes.
He was awarded the Albert Medal,
which was the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross.
And he was taken to Buckingham Palace by his father
and he was given the medal.
Work continued on the lock and, in 1914, it opened
to allow ships to enter the dock directly from the Bristol Channel
for the first time.
A memorial to the victims of the disaster
stands in the nearby St Woolos cemetery,
where I am meeting David Fouweather, the 385th mayor of Newport.
Some of the names here on the plaque are not complete, why would that be?
They were guys from Bristol and other places that came to work
on the docks and, sadly, nobody knew who they were.
What do you know of Tom Toya Lewis?
-Well, Tom Toya Lewis was my great-grandfather.
And I was actually born in his bed at 11 Henry Street in Newport.
So, this young lad from Newport is invited to Buckingham Palace to meet
the King and Queen, is that right?
Absolutely right. My nan tells me that, whilst he was there,
he didn't know how to use a knife and fork.
So, the King actually said to him, "Just use your fingers."
Not only did he have a medal, he also had a brooch, which I have.
Merit medal, presented by the Liverpool Weekly Post.
And there is his name,
-Isn't that lovely?
-You'll look after that pretty carefully.
-I do look after it.
-How do you feel about being Tom's great-grandson?
Oh, very proud indeed.
And for his great-grandson now to be the mayor of Newport,
as well, who would have thought?
Tom would never have believed that.
He would be very pleased.
-And very proud.
I am picking up my journey...
HE BLOWS WHISTLE
..to head across the border into England.
A century ago, ideas had begun to fly not only westward,
but also eastward across the Atlantic,
from the United States to Europe.
The aeroplane was an American invention,
adopted and adapted in Bristol.
But who could know that aviation in the West Country would eventually go
with such a bang?
I am passing underneath the estuary on the River Severn,
through the four-mile Victorian tunnel that links
Monmouthshire with South Gloucestershire.
While above me, road vehicles travel across the water
on the second Severn crossing built just over a hundred years later.
I'm alighting at Filton Abbey Wood, which serves Filton on the outskirts
I understand that the roots of British aviation
are to be found here.
And I have arranged to meet author Andrew Appleton.
What a magnificent runway this must have been in its day.
It is fantastic, isn't it?
-Now, what was the origin of aviation here in Bristol?
It started back in 1910,
there was a local businessman called Sir George White,
who was founder of a tramway company.
He was involved in lots of transport.
With the start of aviation
round about the turn of the century, he got quite interested in that.
He could see the potential.
Sir George White took inspiration from the Wright Brothers,
the two American inventors who achieved the first powered,
sustained and controlled aeroplane flight in 1903.
By 1910, White's company was manufacturing aircraft
on the Bristol Downs.
Why was Filton chosen as a site?
Well, there was a bus terminus at the top of Filton Hill,
and he thought that would be a good place to start.
He could take over the shed there, turn it into a factory.
What sort of aircraft did he build, or at least which ones successfully?
The first successful aircraft was the Boxkite, which flew in 1910.
It was actually the first mass-produced aircraft in Britain.
There was about 85 of them built altogether.
Made of wood, wire and cotton,
the Bristol Boxkite was exported throughout the world.
And as the skies darkened with the threat of war,
aviation was to evolve remarkably fast.
The British Government was quick to see the military potential,
and Filton would play a vital role.
What aircraft types might we know the names of?
Probably the most successful one was the Bristol Fighter which was built
in 1917. That was so successful,
they built about 5,000 of them, I think.
Right up to 1929.
And then probably the next successful one was Concorde.
So why don't we have Concorde today?
I think it was really down to the costs of it all,
justifying using that much fuel to fly across the Atlantic.
So it was all about economy.
Although aircraft no longer fly from here,
Filton is still at the forefront of aeronautical engineering.
I am making my way to Airbus' landing gear test facility
to meet Phil Simms.
Phil, these things are enormous.
This is the undercarriage of one aircraft.
This is the Airbus A380 aircraft.
We've got the entire landing gear system here.
There are 22 wheels in all.
It has all reached an extraordinary level of sophistication, hasn't it?
We're carrying 500, maybe up to 800 passengers on an Airbus A380.
You need the very latest technology, in terms of materials
and in terms of the analysis of this sort of equipment to know it's safe,
and we have to make sure that we've tested it.
When I pull that lever, there's 25 tonnes of rubber, metal,
steel and all sorts of other things go up safely,
as we hope it will on the aircraft itself.
-I want to pull that lever.
I am about to move 25 tonnes of landing gear.
The A380 is airborne.
I am in the captain's seat.
Wow, and it all kicks into motion.
That is amazing. Bits and pieces going up all over the place.
Just one push on the lever, and the whole lot retracts.
Undercarriage doors are going into place right now.
That was so good, I think we might bring them down again!
The toilets are no longer in use.
Cabin crew, resume your seats, please.
The lever goes down, the undercarriage doors open.
Wheels appearing over there.
Wow. They are quite intimidating.
We are ready to land.
How many times do you have to test that?
Well, we typically test it about 5,000-6,000 times
before an aircraft goes into service.
I'm willing to do about 50 for you, would that be all right?
That would absolutely fine.
To celebrate the story of Bristol's aerospace history,
work is underway to create an aviation museum.
Of course, the most iconic passenger plane takes centre stage.
I used to travel on the Concorde a bit,
but I have never felt so intimate
with this magnificent piece of machinery.
I'd do day trips to Washington DC,
arriving there by 11am, coming back in the evening subsonically.
I felt so proud,
because supersonic passenger travel was the preserve of the French
and the British, not the Americans, not the Russians.
And now that we can no longer use it across the Atlantic,
it must be the only example of human beings having slowed down
in their history.
I'll spend the night in Bristol.
And it occurs to me that the city has, for centuries,
thrived on transport.
First, there were the ships, with their many cargoes,
including excellent Bristol sherry.
Then, the trains, with the building of the Great Western Railway,
by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
And in the 20th century - aircraft,
from the Boxkite to the Concorde,
and everything was shipshape and Bristol fashion.
I rejoin the railway to make the 11-minute journey
from Bristol Temple Meads to Bath Spa.
During the course of the 19th century,
Britain moved gradually from allowing only a small minority
of people to vote
towards what politicians called universal suffrage.
But still, half the population was disqualified,
not by wealth or by character or by intellect, but by gender.
The Wiltshire Times of 1908 reports
a meeting at Eagle House in Bath Eastern where a suffragette,
Miss Annie Kenney, spoke of her prison experiences.
What had once been a voice in the wilderness,
calling for votes for women,
became, during the Edwardian period, a deafening clamour.
Founded around its hot springs, from Georgian times,
Bath was a resort for the well-heeled and fashionable.
It's famed for its Neo-classical Palladian architecture.
I'm heading to a fine Victorian building to find out
how the city played a part in the suffragette movement,
with professor of modern British history June Hammond.
Very good to see you.
How nice to meet you.
And a very nice place.
-It's lovely, isn't it?
-Why did you suggest it?
Well, I thought it would be a good idea,
because it used to be the old police station,
and of course it was a place that suffragettes could be brought
when they had done something to break the law.
What were the prison experiences of the women?
Well, they usually had a pretty difficult time,
and I think partly because
they wanted the status of political prisoners,
and they were not being given that status.
And so, by 1909,
many of them went on hunger strike, and that was when they would be
-How did the Liberal government react to this terrible
-Well, they were worried about them becoming martyrs,
and so they brought in legislation which ensured that if you got very
weak, you would be brought out of prison,
and then you would go back into prison when you had recovered.
And so they called this The Cat And Mouse Act.
I am interested in this press cutting.
"By the kind invitation of Colonel and Mrs Blathwayt,
"and Miss Blathwayt,
"a number of guests assembled in the beautiful garden at Eagle House,
"Bath Eastern." Tell me about the Blathwayts.
Well, the Blathwayts were a local family
who were all supportive of the militant suffrage movement,
the most well-known one being
the Pankhurst-led Women's Social and Political Union.
Between 1909 and 1912, the Blathwayt family offered their
home, Eagle House, as a refuge for around 60 women
who had been put in jail. Among them were suffragette Annie Kenney,
a friend of sisters Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst.
Does Eagle House still exist?
Yes, it is still there, and it is still very recognisable
with the eagle on the top.
Women over 30 first voted in Britain in 1918,
but it wasn't until 1928
that all women enjoyed equal voting rights with men.
I've made a four-mile trip to Eagle House, outside the city,
to hear some reminiscences from Frieda Roberts.
Now, what is your connection with Eagle House?
Well, of course, I was born in the servants' quarter,
and we rented it from the Blathwayts.
Which members of the Blathwayt family do you remember?
Mary and William.
Do you have an impression of Mary Blathwayt?
Yes, I do. Very kind,
almost timid lady.
Tell me about this photograph here.
-This is Mary.
And this is Annie.
-And what are they doing?
When they visited the house, they were asked to plant a tree.
And so, for each of the women who came here, perhaps from prison,
a tree was planted, was it?
Yes. Each one.
Have any of those trees survived, do you know?
Well, apparently there's one.
-It would be 100 years old by now.
-How do you feel about those women?
-Well, I think they went through an awful lot.
You know, people should remember that, I think.
They knew what they wanted and, in the end, they got it, didn't they?
Well, we've only got a cup of tea,
but I think we should drink a toast to women's suffrage.
I'm heading back to Bristol Temple Meads
to change trains for my last destination.
The Edwardian period brought with it anxieties,
industrial strife, rebellious stirrings in Ireland,
violence perpetrated by and inflicted upon suffragettes.
Luckily, this was the first age of escapism,
for the golden era of Empire ushered in the silver screen.
-Stopping service to Plymouth, going to Yatton.
-9.55, Plymouth, sir. Platform 12.
-Down the stairs, diagonally across.
I'm en route to Yatton,
but my end point is the Somerset town of Clevedon,
which travellers following my 1907 timetable
could have reached directly
with at least ten trains running per day.
Clevedon became a popular seaside resort in the Victorian era.
But I have come here to see how Edwardians
added a thoroughly modern attraction.
Susannah Shaw is an expert on the history
of the town's community cinema.
Susannah, this is a marvellously preserved cinema -
how long is its history?
It goes back to 1912, that is when the first cinema opened,
built by Victor Cox, a stonemason, who had a good eye for business.
Has this cinema been opened continuously since 1912?
Apart from Christmas Day and Boxing Day, it's run continuously,
even with the rebuilding that went on in the 1920s.
Tell me about its inauguration in 1912.
Well, it was due to open on the 15th of April,
but there was a technical hitch and it was delayed for a few days,
and in that period, we heard news about the sinking of the Titanic.
So, the first film that was shown here,
it was a fundraiser for the families
and the survivors of the Titanic.
An extraordinary piece of history.
What we know as moving film, moving footage, when does that originate?
The first public viewing would have been with the Lumiere brothers'
first film in 1895.
-In France, yeah.
Were there are already movie stars in the Edwardian era?
Yes. Obviously, someone like Mary Pickford,
who was America's sweetheart.
She and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr,
teamed up with Charlie Chaplin to create United Artists.
Cinema emerged as a popular entertainment
and an important source of
information in the Edwardian era.
Moving pictures of Queen Victoria's funeral and Edward VII's coronation,
with their pomp and circumstance, found an enthusiastic audience.
The world of cinema is highly addictive,
and for those who've got the bug,
there is nowhere more exciting than the projection room.
Two projectors, because in the old days,
the projectionist showed one reel on one projector -
that lasted about 20 minutes -
then the other projector would kick in.
Meanwhile, the projectionist is preparing the next reel,
so that the whole film is shown seamlessly.
And this is just such a beautiful and exciting place.
John Neal has been a projectionist here for over 20 years.
-I find you in the very modern projection room,
but in the earliest days, 1912,
what would it have been like in the projection room?
Well, it would have been very hot.
They would have been using carbon arcs -
carbon arcs are carbon electrodes that come together to make a spark.
It produces an intense amount of light,
but an intense amount of heat.
And there would have been a lot of panic to get
one reel laced up, in frame,
in rack before the next one runs out.
-Was it dangerous, then?
-It was a dangerous activity because there was
flame and there was nitrate film stock,
but these were operations that could be managed safely,
and they managed.
-You had to be wiping the sweat from your brow, I imagine.
Until the arrival of the talkies,
silent movies depended on live musical accompaniment,
today in the hands of Bernie Brown, one of the cinema's organists.
Sorry to interrupt you, Bernie.
When did they start to use organs in cinemas?
-In the Edwardian period?
-Yes, from around about 1907 onwards,
you'd find small church organs being used in cinemas.
That looks like a church organ there,
but all of these bits and pieces,
-what are they for?
-Well, they're all designed to accompany silent films,
so you have loads of different effects.
You'll have sort of a fire gong...
A klaxon horn...
-A car horn...
-You didn't give me a train.
-I can do a train.
So yes, you can do a train.
That's absolutely brilliant. Is there any chance of seeing some
-footage on your lovely silver screen today?
-Yes, of course there is.
We've got a silent film rigged up for you to see.
I hope you'll be playing to accompany it.
-I will indeed.
-I'll take a seat.
ORGAN MUSIC PLAYS
"There was once a man who caught a train...
TRAIN WHISTLES, BELL DINGS
What a happy ending.
An Edwardian watching an air show could have no idea
that, in coming years, planes would obliterate cities
and fly us from London to New York in three hours.
At the time of my Bradshaw's,
suffragettes were widely regarded as misguided fanatics.
Only the most vivid imaginations could conceive of talking pictures,
with their potential to inform and entertain.
Today, we think we know everything,
but we understand the future no better
than our Edwardian ancestors.
Next time, I discover how Edwardian gardens came into bloom.
They're old-fashioned roses,
the scent's really powerful in the old roses.
Yes, wonderful fragrance.
Learn how the new bells peeled...
..to herald the incoming monarch.
Isn't that lovely?
And I'm led a merry dance in the name of fertility.
Steered by his early 20th-century Bradshaw's guide, Michael discovers the birthplace of British aviation in Bristol and prepares an Airbus 380 for a smooth landing at Filton. In Newport, he uncovers the heroism of a young boy who rescued a workman from a dock disaster, in which many died. Michael admires the Albert Medal awarded to the brave Tom Lewis, now in the proud possession of his great grandson, the 385th Mayor of Newport.
Michael discovers the home of a forward-thinking Edwardian family at Eagle House in Batheaston. Frieda Roberts remembers the suffragettes who campaigned for votes for women in the early 20th century and found refuge at the house after their release from prison.
And in the Somerset town of Clevedon, Michael goes to the movies in a perfectly preserved cinema dating from 1912 and hears about the first film to be shown there, in aid of survivors of the Titanic disaster.