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September 2023

A historical display on the Women's Land Army
The Women's Land Army Display between the Marquee and the Tea Tent

Meeting one’s readers can often be an interesting experience for any author, but for me an essential part of my work as an historian is meeting the public, not only to receive the invaluable feedback from those who have parted with their hard-earned cash to purchase my publications, but to receive those stories which have been passed down the generations in families and hear those titbits of information that help to complete the jigsaw on a given topic or location that would otherwise soon be lost to history with the passing of time. I also perceive an element of my role as an historian is that of informing and educating and correcting the misconceptions that erode the factual account.

Thus I accepted the invitation to take my exhibition of photographs of Cornwall in World War Two and sell my books at the 2023 West of England Steam Engine Rally at the Stithians Showground over a long weekend in August. I was assigned the rear section of a small marquee in the Rural & Bygones Section of the show.

The marquee
The marquee

Taking photographs to an outdoor venue always has its risks and the weather didn’t disappoint! On the Friday afternoon/evening Storm Betty did its worse to try and disrupt the event. Organisers had to resort to holding down marquees with tractors as a number of exhibitors lost their tents and gazebos with their wares scattered, while displays in the main ring were cancelled or disrupted even as late as the Sunday when a traction engine got bogged down in the mud needing a second to haul it out with the crowd evacuated to a safe distance. The small marquee where I was located fared much better thanks to the attention of the section secretaries who had applied additional guy ropes. A couple of my display boards had toppled over in the wind overnight but no damage was done.

The Military Vehicle Trust exhibiting jeeps outside green military tents
The MVT jeep and tents

However, across the three days hundreds of showgoers came through the exhibition leading at times to a crowded and cramped tent, much to the consternation of the Cornwall Woodcarvers and the Cornwall Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers who occupied the spots nearer the entrance. With an outdoor display of the Women’s Land Army with an Allis-Chalmers vintage tractor and ‘The Albion’ – a 4’ cut mower/reaper - amongst the milk churns, crates and Royal Enfield motorcycle and the Spitfire Tea Tent serving excellently-priced and tasty refreshments as my neighbours, not to mention the fine array of military vehicles further down the enclosure which included several US Jeeps and an American International half-track from the guys in the Military Vehicles Trust there was a real 1940s feel to our corner of the showground.

A wartime tent serving food and beverages
The Spitfire Tea Tent

Across the three days I met some fascinating people with superb stories to tell and spent the days discussing various locations and events from the war in Cornwall. For example, in A Place And A Name the Major has a meeting with the MI5 Port Security Officer in Falmouth, a man called Bob Dunstan, who was a real historical figure and was responsible for the arrest of three spies in the port during the war. I was privileged to meet his daughter who came through the exhibition and made herself known. Sadly the board with the photo of her father who was responsible for the arrest of three spies in Falmouth during the war was not on display this time, but I was able to read her a paragraph about her father from my book.

An exhibition of wartime photography and artifacts relating to evacuation and RAF Portreath
The part of the exhibition focusing on evacuees and RAF Portreath

Another lady told me the story of how she was saved from the machine gunning that accompanied the bombing of the Royal Cornwall Infirmary in Truro on 6th August 1942. She had been outside in her pram when her father, a veteran of the Great War and member of the Truro Home Guard, on hearing the planes swoop down across the city, rushed and grabbed her and headed indoors. When they returned to the pram after the raiders had passed there were holes in the pram from the machine gun bullets.

An outdoor display of wartime agricultural artifacts
The Women's Land Army display

I was also told that a former Head of Mossad and deputy foreign secretary of the state of Israel were billeted in Clinton Road, Redruth, by a family who took in two Jewish evacuees. Whilst I can find no details in the biographies of former Heads of Mossad that fit the bill, I don’t doubt the basis of the story (although the finer details may be inaccurate – he may have been a section head, rather than head of the organisation) as the son who told me said the family had visited their former evacuee in Israel in 1982 who had taken time off work to give them a tour of the city where they met up.

An exhibition of assorted wartime photography and artifacts
More of the exhibition

The display on the American Sausage Camps provoked much interest, especially the camp at Wheal Busy. One gentleman said his house was just 50 yards off an aerial photograph on display and he had never heard the story of all that had gone on in the vicinity of his home. Another man came from a family who had farmed the fields where tents had been erected. I received several tip-offs as to where the Americans had buried jeeps or tipped equipment down mineshafts. The pained expressions that met my comments that ‘the Americans were going to war. They took their equipment with them. They buried their rubbish. If I had a pound for every time I’m told where the Americans had left behind expensive and essential equipment I would be a millionaire!’ I wait to be proved wrong as thus far the only items found down a mineshaft have been a helmet and a few packing cases at a shaft near RAF Perranporth and neither appear to be American!

An American International halftrack
An American International halftrack

There was also much interest in the photographs of the construction of the Embarkation Hards and the concrete roads that led down to them on the Helford and Fal estuaries. It was good to correct the misconception that these had been built by the Americans. They were British built, with civilian labour such as Curtis & Co of Penryn, hardcore from Porthoustock Quarries laid by teams of Irish navvies, and then handed over to the Americans once complete. They did utilise some large American equipment such as their large bulldozers and earth-movers and concrete mixers which were a new sight to the Cornish folk living around the sites. At Porthgwidden (now Trebah) black American troops did widen a section of the road by six feet but the notion these facilities were all built by the Americans is totally false.

A jeep in the MVT display
A jeep in the MVT display

There were people who spotted family members in the photographs, like the man who saw his mother in a photo of the Women’s Land Army outside their hostel in the vicarage at St Hilary. Others were delighted to see wartime film footage of RAF Portreath where their relatives had served.

I was amazed at the number of people who viewed the exhibition through their mobile phone screens. While many were more interested in their latest social media posts, one chap had photographed the board on the Radio Security Service at St Erth. His photo ended up on the St Erth Nostalgia Facebook page where a discussion about who knew so much about the site ensued. Eventually the author of the book ‘Listening To The Enemy’ whose family I had helped in the early stages of their research on their father who served at St Erth got in touch to say ‘Is this you?’ ‘Well, yes it’s my board,’ I replied, ‘but I didn’t post the picture!’

Photos of the Americans in Cornwall
Photos of the Americans in Cornwall

It was humbling to receive the positive comments on both the exhibition and the books over the three days of the rally. The icing on the cake came on Sunday when presented with the Alan Thomas Memorial Shield for the Best Vintage Collection in the Rural & Bygones Section of the show (see home page). A big thank you to section secretaries Andy Brazier and Elliot Thipthorpe who looked after us so well over the four days we were there, secured the marquee through the storm and helped make the event such a success. Along with the ride my son received round the camping field from Adrian Snell of the Military Vehicles Trust in his American half-track which made my son’s weekend, it was two happy exhibitors who packed up and headed home exhausted on the Sunday night.

A jeep from the MVT
A jeep from the MVT

With the 80th anniversary of D-Day next year 2024 promises to be a busy one for my exhibition. I have already received a booking for VE80 in 2025. I also give illustrated talks to history societies and other interested groups and am due to do several around Cornwall during the autumn. Bookings for 2024 are now being taken.

So if you are one of those who came through the exhibition, thank you. If you have yet to see it, keep your eyes and ears posted. If you have a venue that would like to host it, then get in touch. So as summer passes into autumn and the crowds of holidaymakers head home, check out those old boxes in the attic or grandad’s bits and bobs in the suitcase on the wardrobe. You may never know what gems you could unearth – photos, documents, pieces of history that need showing and telling. Till next month, all the best.

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