Category Archives: Did You Know?

Grace’s Guide to Christmas Puddings

Christmas Pudding

Did you know more than two thirds of Christmas puddings sold in the UK come from one Derbyshire firm?

So when you sit down to your festive pud this season it’ll probably be one of the 26 million produced each year by Matthew Walker , the world’s oldest Christmas pudding maker.

Matthew Walker, a farmer’s son, started making preserves and Christmas puddings, from family recipes. After the Victorians adopted the pudding as a festive favourite for the family Christmas menu, Walker made enough sales to open a small factory in Derby’s Exeter Street in 1899. It was here where the firm began its extraordinary success story producing festive puds for the majority of the British market.

In 1967 Matthew Walker opened the factory in Heanor, where they still remain.
From here they use 1.3 million litres of alcohol and 300,000 tons of raisins to churn out around 7,500 tons of Christmas pudding each year. They sell to every supermarket, produce 280 varieties of pudding, and export as far as Australia.

Visit the official Matthew Walker website.

The first Christmas pudding recipes date back to the Middles Ages when rabbits, pheasants and partridge made up the bulk of pudding portions. The Plantagenets continued the savoury trends and introduced beef and mutton to the mix during the 14th century. It was a highly effective method of preserving meat to last the winter months. Livestock was slaughtered in autumn, and the meat was mixed with dried fruit, sugar and spices to act as preservatives when the mixture was stored in its pastry casing. “Plum pottage” was a name for this mix of meat, fruit and spices and it became a favourite dish served before meals in the 1500s.

A Christmas CarolThis seasonal treat was only enjoyed for a few decades before it was banned by the Puritans in 1664. But King George I (also known as The Pudding King) lifted this ban in the early 18th century. As meat preserving techniques bettered, the meaty ingredients were used less and less, and eventually they were replaced by breadcrumbs, fruit and spirits.

It wasn’t until the 1830’s that the fruity pudding we know, complete with holly sprig atop, came into fashion. They became a classic symbol of the Victorian Christmas menu encouraged more by Charles Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ and newly found ideas of a traditional family Christmas.

Sources of information: and From Her Majesty to HMP: The Christmas pudding factory that feeds the nation
By Daily Mail Reporter: 02:07, 23 December 2008

Today Walter Brookins Stands Out A Mile

Walter Brookins
“I never think of the danger. I get so interested in what I am doing that I forget my own safety. You would too if you were up there with me, for it is a wonderful sensation.”

We’ve all heard of the Wright Brothers – the Americans from Ohio credited for designing and building the first aircraft. They made the first heavier-than-air human flight in December 1903 and together paved the way for the development of modern aeroplanes. This day back in 1910, however, belongs to the young boy who lived next door to Orville and Wilbur Wright; who’d known the brothers since he was four and who grew up dreaming of the  day Orville Wright would build him his very own aircraft to fly…

Walter Brookins was fascinated by the Wright Brothers. As a boy, he would venture next door to watch them work away on whirring motors and spluttering propellers. His fearless attitude and fierce curiosity at such a young age won the brothers over and it wasn’t long before Orville decided Walter would be the first person he’d train to fly in one of his machines.

Walter or “Brookie” as the Wright family called him, learned to fly in 1909 at the Wright Flying School when he was 20 years old. After only two and a half hours of instruction, he achieved his first solo flight. He used his natural aviation talents teaching others to fly when Orville wasn’t around, and eventually he became an aviation pioneer in his own right. In fact Brookins became the most daring member of the Wright Flyers team in several exhibition flights and meets.

"The Wright flyers put on three thrillers. Walter Brookins, whose name is now written in aviation history, added to his fame by making one of the most sensational short turns ever successfully accomplished. In a short turn exhibition he brought his machine up to such an angle that from the stands it looked like it was standing in end and he would be pitched to the ground one hundred feet below. The game youngster righted his craft with all ease, however and established a record for short turns that it is believed will stand for many a day. It is not believed by Brookins himself that he could ever tilt a biplane to such an angle again and get away with it. The trick made hearts stand still, and even the Wrights were amazed at the young fellow's daring." From The Indianaopolis News June 17th 1910.

On 14th June 1910 he made a world record flight, flying 1,335m high (4,380ft), and later set world records for both altitude and endurance. He smashed his own world record for flying at the highest altitude on July 10th 1910 in New Jersey, when he broke through the clouds 1,882m (6,175ft) high in his Wright biplane.

One hundred and five years ago today, he became the first person in history to fly at an altitude of one mile.

Read more about Walter Brookins and The Wright Brothers on Grace’s Guide.

On This Day in 1855…

The Panama Railway dispatched its first locomotive across the Isthmus of Panama


Last year, we celebrated the 100th year anniversary of one of the world’s greatest civil engineering achievements – the construction of the Panama Canal. But it was today, 160 years ago, that the Panama railroad was completed and saw the first train travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean connecting the east to west.

The Panama Railroad was of vital importance for the construction of the Panama Canal, constructed 50 years later. But it was the growing pressures of western immigration that triggered the railway’s dawning.

After the United States claimed California as a result of the Mexican War in 1846, only a trickle of American settlers had made the arduous trek from the east to the western coast. After many shelved ideas and propositions, the United States once again turned its attention to securing a safe and quick link between the Atlantic and the Pacific with the prospective movement of settlers to the west.

Panama was the narrowest crossing between the two oceans and offered the obvious and quickest connection from east to west. In 1847 the Panama Railroad Company was set up to achieve just that, and by 1850 work had begun to lay down the tracks.

The discovery of gold in California one year after the railroad plans were made only heightened the importance of its completion to many prospectors wanting to head west in search for their fortune.

The California Gold Rush of the late 1840s saw thousands of people catch “gold fever” and embark on the adventurous journey to the wild west. By the end of 1848 thousands of excited people from the eastern coast of America to as far as Chile planned big trips to California.

Travellers from the east coast had three travel choices: Travel by sea around the tip of South America, take the shortcut through Nicaragua near Panama, or travel by land.

Travelling by sea around South America’s southern tip of Cape Horn was a very popular route in the early days of the Gold Rush with hundreds of ships embarking on the 13,000 mile voyage. But the trip could last up to eight months and ships were jammed with passengers causing discomfort, scurvy and frustration.

Most people opted to travel by land, but this had to be a carefully planned journey at the right time of year if travellers and their cattle were going to reach the grassy plains before others reached the best grazing lands. Many didn’t make the well marked Oregon Trail without catching cholera from the muddy river waters. Even if they survived disease there was still the punishing Forty Mile Desert to endure and many men, horses and cattle became exhausted and perished before completing their pilgrimage.

A dense jungle, humming with swarms of malarial mosquitoes, the temptingly narrow stretch of Panama awaited any brave traveller heading for the West Coast in search of gold. But many wanted to avoid the tropical diseases of Panama, and so to shortcut the lengthy voyage around Cape Horn, disembarked on the east coast of Nicaragua crossing the Lake Nicaragua to then complete the final leg of the journey in large steamers and carriages to San Francisco.

When the Panama Railroad was finally completed in early 1855, it was a far-reaching transport success that changed the course of history and kick-started a migration of tens of thousands of emigrants to the new gold rich western lands. It was by far the quickest and most comfortable means to get to California and as a result Panama’s economy thrived.

Read detailed accounts of the Panama Railroad in The Engineer journals below:

The Panama Railroad – The Engineer 1902/10/10

The Panama Railroad by Percy F. Martin

*No I – The Engineer 1912/06/14
*No II – The Engineer 1912/06/21

High-Wheelers of the 1870s: The Penny-Farthing Era

James Starley’s Giant Penny Farthing

The penny-farthing is a well-known cliché image of the Victorian age. A bizarre and short-lived velocipede that despite its short window in history, made a great impact in the world of cycling today. These ‘high-wheelers’ or ‘ordinary bicycles’ were the first bicycles with which actual speed and distance could be achieved in a practical manner.

Penny- farthings were contraptions born from the designs of the famous French ‘boneshaker’ – which as the name suggests, was a highly uncomfortable ride.

Envisage hurtling along, poised atop a frame designed of stiff wrought-iron with only iron tires on wooden wheels to provide suspension, and you probably wouldn’t be far off  imagining a French ‘boneshaker’ ride. This was the first type of true bicycle with pedals and they were hailed with the name ‘velocipedes’ ( human-powered land vehicles with one or more wheels), by their manufacturers.

Pierre Lallemant
Pierre Lallemant’s ‘Boneshaker’.

During the early 1870s, English inventor James Starley started manufacturing bicycles based on the ‘boneshaker’ design. He increased the front wheel size to enable higher speeds, and so created the famous penny-farthing.

We’ve all heard of the penny-farthing and many of us have seen pictures of them – the bravest of us can even ride them. But imagine riding one at high-speed along the roughest roads of the late 1800s. Bear in mind, you’ve no means to really brake, there’s every chance you’ll fall off and you’re perched at almost two metres from the ground. They were very dangerous and many succumbed to falling over the handlebars or performing a ‘header’. Despite their obvious risks however,  high-wheelers appealed to the young and wealthy Victorian men who craved the excitement and thrill of such speedy and technically-advanced machines.


The term penny-farthing originated from the comparison of the smaller and larger wheels to farthing and penny coins, referenced a lot in the media as a derogatory word during the 1890s  when the contraptions were almost outdated. Many enthusiasts today may ask you to call them ‘high-wheelers’ or ‘ordinary bicycles’ – a name they were given during the late 1890s to differentiate from the new and up-coming ‘safety bicycles.’

The launch of the Rover Safety Bicycle saw to a halt in the manufacture of the high-wheeled ordinary bicycles by 1893. The ‘Rover’ was lower, the rider sat further behind from the front wheel and so was less prone to fall forward – a common problem with the penny-farthing.  With the development of the Rover’s upgraded chain drivers, higher speeds could be obtained without the large wheel and the high-wheeled bicycle was outdated. From 1895 they were simply known as an ‘ordinary’ or the now-familiar coinage-based term of disparagement – penny-farthing.

Today they stand as a much loved symbol of  Victorian leisure and bridge the early bicycle design with our light-weight road racers today – no doubt with a claim to have helped inspire the birth of cycling as a sport as well.

Read more about the history of the cycle. Or look up cycle manufacturers in our cycle category.

On This Day in 1910…

Eugene Ely performed the first shipboard aircraft take-off and landing.

First airplane takeoff from a warship
Image sourced from Ancient US-Navy saylor (uploaded by W.wolny) (US Navy Photo #: NH 77601) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A keen salesman, racing driver and mechanic, Eugene Ely also had natural skills as an aviator that were to fame him as one of the greatest aviation pioneers in history.

Young and ambitious, in the early months of 1910 when he worked for Mr. Wemme as an auto salesman, he taught himself to fly using the Curtiss biplane Mr. Wemme had bought.

After mastering the art of flying the aircraft in only a few months, Ely never looked back.

He flew to Minnesota to attend an exhibition, and it was here he met Glenn Curtiss and became a well-known pilot within the Curtiss Exhibition Team receiving an Aero Club of America pilot’s license, No. 17 on the 5th October 1910.

In the same month, both Ely and Curtiss had made their acquaintance with Captain Washington I. Chambers who had recently been asked by the Navy to identify how the study of aviation could benefit problems in naval warfare. Chambers realised in order to prove aeroplanes could operate at sea, successful take-offs and landings from ships had to be achieved.

Naturally, Ely jumped at this challenge.

On November 14th 1910, Ely’s Curtiss aircraft was hoisted aboard the USS Birmingham at Norfolk before a temporary wooden platform and the ship readied for the experiment at Chesapeake Bay.  It was an unsteady take-off where the aircraft literally plunged off the edge of the ship’s bow. The wheels dipped and skimmed the sea, breaking off one of the propeller blades. Ely managed to steady the aircraft, remain airborne for a further 2 miles, and land safely on the sandy beach at Willoughby Bay.

He became the first man to take-off from a ship and land safely afterwards at just 24 years old with only a few months of flying experience.

London’s “Magnificent Seven”

Did you know that during the 19th Century, to alleviate overcrowding in existing parish burial grounds, seven private cemeteries were established around London?

In just 50 years, London’s population had doubled from 1 million in 1800 to 2.3 million in 1850. Stories of body snatchers and graves being dug that already contained bodies prompted a creation of  several cemeteries, independent of any parish church, with well-thought out landscape design to appeal to the newly emerging middle-class.

These were to be known as “London’s Magnificent Seven Cemeteries” and aren’t only the resting places of many well-known names in British industrial history, but have become unique and historic visitor attractions.

These seven are:

  1. Kensal Green Cemetery - Click to see our extensive list of engineers known to be buried here.Isambard Kingdom Brunel's tomb at The Kensal Green Cemetery.
  2. Highgate Cemetery - One of the most famous of the seven and resting place for Michael Faraday and Karl Marx amongst others.
  3. Nunhead Cemetery - Consecrated in 1840,  this quiet burial ground shelters an Anglican chapel.
  4. West Norwood Cemetery -Perhaps the most ‘well-maintained’ than the others, Henry Bessemer and Sir Henry Tate are buried here.The resting place of Henry Bessemer, (West Norwood Cemetery).
  5. Abney Park Cemetery -In 1840 this cemetery was arranged as an extensive A-Z arboretum, with several organised visitor’s attractions.
  6. Brompton Cemetery - Said to host tombstones that inspired character names for Beatrix Potter’s children’s books, this cemetery nurtures a domed chapel and the graves of Charles Vignoles and John Fowler.
  7. Tower Hamlets Cemetery - This cemetery was opened in 1841 and closed for burials in 1966. It’s now a peaceful nature reserve.