RIVER THAMES NEWS FEATURED BOOK

Commander by Stephen Taylor
Publisher:Faber & Faber

Researched at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, Stephen Taylor’s superb new book Commander tells the story of Edward Pellew, Britain’s greatest frigate captain.

A contemporary of Nelson, Pellew is the likely real-life model for Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s novels.

Without the advantage of aristocratic connections, Pellew worked his way up in the Royal Navy to become an incomparable sailor and a ferocious  sea battle commander. Taylor’s book is a fascinating account of a sea captain who was master tactician but also a great, what we'd today call, man manager.

He won the devotion of his men with his fairness in command, his agility in the rigging and a series of incidents including diving to the rescue of crew members who had fallen overboard.

Fearless in the face of the enemy he was also unafraid to confront the top brass of the Admiralty when he thought they were wrong or wanted his own way.

Maritime author Stephen Taylor, a master story-teller, has used the museum’s archives, Pellew’s letters and much other original material including family documents to produce a book which is both fascinating biography and gripping story of the sea.

His previous books like Storm and Conquest have been described as “thrilling” (by Jeremy Paxman) and as “brilliant” (by the Guardian). Commander, though, has a great claim to be his best yet.

EARLIER FEATURED BOOKS

Eyots and Aits - Islands of the River Thames by Amanda Vickers.
Publisher: The History Press

What connects Henry VIII, Nicholas Nickleby and Mick Jagger?
The answer, according to author Miranda Vickers is Eel Pie Island at  Twickenham.

The king was partial to the pies once baked there. Dickens mentions a river trip from Westminster to the island in the novel. And in the 60s the Eel Pie Island Hotel forged a place in rock music history by staging gigs involving a host of bands who later became famous. Among them the, then unknown, Rolling Stones.

Miranda Vickers quotes historian and Thames enthusiast A.P. Herbert as saying there were almost as many books about the Thames as there were about love.

Her latest book is a fascinating addition to that growing bookshelf encompassing an aspect largely uncovered until now – a detailed description and history of islands of the river or aits or eyots as they are known

They range from the estuary’s Two Tree and Canvey Islands in the east upstream to St John’s Island beside the river’s highest lock and watched over by the statue of Old Father Thames.

Canvey, incidentally, is far more interesting than its faded seaside resort and oil refinery reputation would lead you to believe according to the author. Remains of Viking longboats, Danish and Roman settlement have been discovered. And the nature reserve at western end has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in Western Europe.

Another with a fascinating history, though by rumour rather than fact, Oliver’s Ait  at Chiswick has reputed links with Oliver Cromwell who, says legend, took refuge there during the Civil War.

Meticulously researched, packed with intriguing facts, but it is not just the islands make the book intriguing. It is the cast of characters attracted to the  aits.

They include Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn – Lot’s Ait at Brentford was the unlikely location for many of the scenes for their  1951 film The African Queen.

A notorious swindler Maundy Gregory lived on Thames Ditton Island and was deeply embroiled in a “cash for honours” scam in the 1920s. Question marks also remain about the mysterious death of a woman friend whose fortune he inherited.

And if you have every wondered about the grand building on Temple Island at Henley, it was built as an ornate fishing lodge for the owner of nearby Fawley Court in the 17th century with interiors based on designs discovered at Pompeii.

Home to 3,000 people or 40,000 if you include Canvey, many Thames islands attract, says the author “those looking for a peaceful, alternative lifestyle.”

They have variously been playgrounds for the rich, workplaces for river folk, boatyards, refuges from the Blitz, or escapes from the city smog. Miranda Vickers’ impressive new book charts their stories in impressive detail.

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Ferries of the Upper Thames by Joan Tucker
A meticulously researched, comprehensive history of the numerous ferries which once plied the river between its source and Staines. Now there are none. Joan Tucker's latest book is a companion to her earlier history of ferries on the lower Thames.

How the ferries started, who used them and how they fell out of use is told in fascinating detail. The author consulted archives and publications of the time but also visited the site of every one. A impressive addition to books on the history of the Thames.

Illustrated with a carefully selected collection of historic photographs, it is published by Amberley.

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