Secret Beeston

New Book Available From August 2017

Secret Beeston

by Frank E Earp and Joseph Earp

“The Nottinghamshire town of Beeston as we know it today began life as an Anglo-Saxon settlement close to the banks of the River Trent. By the late eighteenth century the town had developed into a thriving textile centre. The nineteenth century saw a new mix of other industries, including famous names like the Humber Works and Boots the Chemist. Over the last decade Beeston has witnessed its greatest change with the introduction of an extension to Beeston of Nottingham City’s Tram Network. Local authors and historians Frank E. Earp and Joseph Earp delve into the town’s murkier past in this unique approach to the town’s history, blending the serious with the not so serious, and seeking out its hidden secrets”.


Available from all good book shops and also available on-line. The book can also be ordered directly from Amberley Publishing:

Telephone: 01453 847800

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Skipper on the Trent

Les Davey started working for British Waterways in 1960 when he was 27, and describes the job he loved on the huge lighters (barges) of the River Trent as “…an adventure every trip”. The work was hard and sometimes took him away from home for up to a week, depending on the weather and the types of load his boat would be required to carry. In winter, it was often so cold that the crew had to take the ropes inside the cabin instead of stacking them neatly on deck where they might freeze and be unmanageable.

But Les has always been adventurous, and although he was glad to return between trips to his wife Susan and three sons in Sherwood, he also enjoyed going camping in all weathers – and still does at the age of eight-four. Interestingly, for the last fifty years Les has also found poetry very therapeutic, writing it as well as reading it.

The following are accounts of some of the ‘adventures’ Les experienced during his time as skipper of one of Nottingham’s lighters in the 1960s:


We cast off from Nottingham on the Trent at 8.30 in the morning, heading for Hull, intending to reach there sometime tomorrow. Our cargo would be gravel, which we would load up on the lighter (or ‘dumb boat’) from the river-bed by the dredger, just south of Newark. We made it there and moored up to the dredger; me and my brother Robert loaded up, and we set off for Hull.

We were making good time and decided to moor up at West Burton. It was possible to get to Hull in a day but we decided to stay for the night at West Burton as there was a jetty there where we could stay for the night, not far from a nearby power station. We arrived and moored up, checked the rope and stepped ashore. It was about a mile from the pub that we were heading for, and when we reached it and being a winter evening it felt very cold. We ordered a pint and stood there chatting.

We didn’t know, of course, but 30 minutes earlier there’d been a big fight between some local men and a few Irishmen who worked at the power station. The locals had given the Irishmen a thrashing and by the time we got there it was all quiet. We all six of us – me and Robert and the crew from the other lighter – stood there chatting when all of a sudden we heard voices and a crowd of very angry Irishmen came barging in.

They all had large screwdrivers and large spanners, and thought we were the local men who had beaten their friends up. To me they didn’t seem reasonable – they just wanted revenge.

We stood at the bar in amazement, then I saw the side door and did a runner. When I returned the place was empty except for our bargees. One of our lads had a large bandage over his head, put there by the landlord’s wife who was a nurse. Apparently they had started fighting, then the landlord had told the men to stop fighting, pointed to one of the Irishmen and said, “Patrick, what’s going on?”

Patrick explained that some local men had beaten them up earlier – but the landlord replied that we were not from this area, and added, “Leave now or I’ll call the police! So they left, but we had a lucky escape. That bandaged man could have been me. We supped up and went back to our boats and crawled into our bunks.


We cast off in the lighter from Nottingham at 10am, bound for Hull with another load of gravel. We  moored up at Gainsborough and stayed the night there, casting off from there next morning and arriving at Hull mid- afternoon. From there the tug would sort a load to take back to Nottingham, which would be the following day. After the task of dropping down to near the mouth of the river Hull, we had a meal. My younger brother Robert, who was mate on the boat, went for a walk to the shops to get some groceries, and I settled down for a read.

After a while I thought I’d make a cup of tea. It was 4 pm. The tide was ebbing and bearing in mind it was late October, it would soon be getting dark. At this time, twilight, there would be visitors who were not welcome on board. Rats! They always come out when it starts to get dark, a bit like vampires. So I got my airgun and loaded it.

I went up on deck and lay behind the Carley Float [an emergency raft carried on board, consisting of a buoyant canvas ring with a wooden grid deck]. I lay down and sure enough about 30 minutes later a big rat started walking along the head rope, intending to get on board. It was about 15 feet from where I lay.

I aimed – and smack, it was a head shot. The rat just fell off the rope into the water. It splashed about a little and then sank into the quagmire. A boating friend of mine told me a short while back that he once fell overboard and in no time he was up to his waist in mud, which is like grey porridge, and if it wasn’t for his friends pulling him out he would have disappeared.

Then I looked along the craft and saw another rat coming aboard so I loaded my air rifle again and started crawling along the deck so that the visitor couldn’t see me. When I thought I was near enough I spied the rascal and took aim. That one joined its partner in the  mud and disappeared. It was starting to get dark and I made my way along the decking to the cabin which was aft. Just then my brother appeared and said he’d got us some fish and chips.

We climbed down into the cabin. We had two foldup chairs, a drop down table and two comfortable bunks and we also had a coal or wood burning stove so it was a home from home. After we had dined and had a drink we decided to turn in. The toilet was in the forecastle, so we used that and then turned in. By this time it was almost low water outside.

Next morning we got up at 6 am and I had a look outside, where the tide was flooding (which means that the water was rising). We were prepared for it and got our breakfast and afterwards did our ablutions.

About an hour later I stuck my head over the side and checked the other boats in the river. They were all afloat, yet we were still sitting on the bottom. I thought, how strange, and started to potter about tidying the deck ropes. My brother and I drank some more tea.

I then had another look over the side, and we were still sitting on the bottom whilst the other boats around us were afloat. Why weren’t we?

By this time I was concerned and told my brother to get all our personal gear on deck. I remembered I had a heavy lump hammer so I walked round the decking, smashing the hammer down with all my might on the steel decks, hoping the boat would rise with the vibration. I soon got fed up with it, but by this time the waters had risen to the decks.

Suddenly she rose, just like a submarine. My – was I pleased!! My brother put our personal gear back down into the cabin. Just then the tug came for us and took us to King George’s dock for a load of timber planking from Norway. And when we were loaded up and ready, we set off for Nottingham.

Memories by Les Davey. Words Edited by Viv Apple. 

Mr Les Davey

Posted in Memories of Nottinghamshire, Nottinghamshire Industrial History, River & Parks, Trades & Characters | Leave a comment

Arthur Mee

by Frank E Earp

Biography: Arthur Henry Mee was born in Stapleford Nottinghamshire on 21st July 1875. He was the second child and eldest son, of the ten children born to Henry and Mary Mee (nee Fletcher). Henry Mee was a mechanical engineer working for the railways and in various biographies Arthur’s upbringing is described as ‘working class’. His father was a Baptist Deacon and throughout his life, Arthur was a devout Christian, although he had an understanding and firm belief in evolution. At school the young Arthur does not seem to have inherited his fathers practical skills, but developed a passion for English. He excelled in both the written and spoken word and his reading skills were second to none. Before leaving school Arthur put his abilities to good use and earned a little money by reading allowed ‘Parliamentary Reports’ and newspapers to blind neighbour and local baker, Henry Mellows.

First Job and Cub Reporter: In 1889, – shortly before Arthur left school at the age of 14, – the Mee family moved to Nottingham. This move gave Arthur the opportunity of taking what seems to be his perfect first job. This was at the ‘Nottingham Express’, where he was employed as a ‘copy-holder’ an assistant to a ‘proofreader’. The worked entailed reading allowed the original hand written manuscripts so that the proofreader might check the typeset text. At the age of around 15 Arthur taught himself ‘Pitman’s shorthand and regularly honed his skills every Sunday morning by taking notes of the sermon at the Baptist Chapel. Arthur found one sermon particularly interesting and after the service hurried home to write up his notes as an article. The following day he submitted his work to an editor at the paper who saw its merit. The article was subsequently published and he was taken on as an apprentice reporter. So began Arthur’s long career as a writer and journalist. At this time, it was the job of a ‘cub reporter’ to gather whatever news they could from Hospitals, Police and Fire Stations, and to report on Court cases, Council meetings and the like. All of this meant long days travelling the streets. Where ever possible Arthur would save his tram-fare and walk between location. He considered his meagre income better spent on pork pies and custard tarts.

Life long friend and holiday romance: Arthur finished his apprenticeship with the Express at the age of 20 and was given an editorship at its ‘sister paper’ the Nottingham Evening Post which commanded a substantial wage of 30 shillings a week. With this new found ‘wealth,’ Arthur was to take up rooms in Nottingham with fellow journalist John Hammerton. Hammerton was also a newly appointed editor, but at Arthur’s former paper the Express. Although the two young men were in many ways polar opposites, – unlike Arthur, John was neither religious or tee-total, – they were to become life-long friends. Whilst on holiday in 1895 Arthur met and fell in love with Amelia Fraston, the woman who was to become his wife.

London calls: The ever ambitious Arthur taught himself to type and to supplement his wages further, took to writing articles for National journals like ‘Tit-bits’, – a popular weekly magazine founded by George Newnes in 1881. Arthur’s interest and style of writing meant that his contributions to the magazine soon became popular with the readership. It wasn’t long before his talents were spotted and in 1896 Newnes in person, offered Arthur £1,000 a year to work for him full-time. This was an offer Arthur could not refuse and he moved to the London based magazine. For the next few years he made a sizeable contribution to its content whilst further supplementing his now substantial income, by contributing articles to the Morning Herald and the St. James Gazette. A year after his move to London, Arthur and Amelia were married and moved into a house on Tulse Hill, London.

1901, eventful year: The year 1901 was a truly significant one for Arthur with some life changing and life affirming events. To begin-with, Arthur had that year, taken the post as editor of a ‘sixpenny weekly paper’ know as The Black and White. Here he was able to employ his friend John Hammerton as literary and dramatic critic. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful cooperation, which produced some of Arthur’s best known works. It was also whilst working for this paper that Arthur was to meet a Miss Margaret Lillie, who was to become another life-long friend and his personnel secretary for the next 40 years.

Inspirational daughter: On a more personnel level for Aurther, it was in 1901 that Amelia gave birth to their only daughter, Marjorie. Soon after the birth the couple moved to a new home in Hextable, Kent. No one at the time could have foreseen that it would be Marjorie’s inquisitive nature that seven years later, would inspire Arthur to write The Children’s Encyclopaedia. The work was published in 50 parts between 1908 and 1910 and became one of the most popular children’s books of the day.

Dynamic Duo: In the next two years together with his friend John Hammerton, Arthur came up with an idea for a new magazine with a proposed title ‘Who’s Who This Week’ which they presented to Harmsworth Amalgamated Press, owned by ‘publishing mogul’ Alfred Harmsworth, (Lord Northcliffe). The idea was rejected, but Harmsworth instantly recognised the great potential of both men. Arthur was appointed general editor of The Harmsworth Self Educator which in collaboration with Hammerton, was published as a part-work between 1905 and 1907. Next came ‘The Children’s Encyclopaedia’, the success of which led to Arthur’s editorship of the World’s first weekly newspaper especially for children, ‘The Children’s Newspaper.’ The paper remained in print from March 1919 to May 1965 when it was absorbed by another title. Over its 46 year life, – 25 of which were under Arthur’s editorship, – the paper produced 2,397 issues.

For Arthur and Hammerton their time working for Harmsworth Amalgamated Press was their most productive years. In his lifetime Arthur Mee wrote around 200 books including the most of the 41 volumes of the Kings England series. John Alexander Hammerton, (1871-1949), went on to receive a Knighthood for his services. The ‘Dictionary of National Biogrophy describes him as The most successful creator of large-scale works of reference that Britain has known”.

Unexpected death: Arthur Henry Mee’s death was sudden and unexpected. On the 27th May 1943 he was admitted to hospital for a routine operation on a gland. He died unexpectedly the following day. A service of remembrance was held at St. Dunstan’s Fleet Street, London, on 6th June. Sadly, the house in Stapleford where he was born, – which was behind the parish church of St. Helen, – has now been demolished. A Blue Plaque on the wall of the Arthur Mee Centre, – next to the Library, – is all that marks the town as the birth place of this great man.

A young Arthur Mee at his desk.

Eynsford Hill, Mee’s old house near Sevenoaks in Kent

Posted in Nottinghamshire People, Legends and Characters, Nottinghamshire Suburbs, Stapleford | Leave a comment

Memories of Beeston Zoo

by Joe Earp

Regulars to the Nottingham Hidden History page will remember that a while back we did an article on the Beeston Zoo which brought back a lot of memories for readers. For the original article click on the link below:

Just to remind readers who missed the article, the zoo in question was located at the Victoria Hotel in Beeston. Built around 1839, named after Queen Victoria (1819- 1901) – a popular monarch who is often featured on pub signboards. The Victoria Hotel is situated next door to Beeston Train station and like so many Victorian establishments was built to serve the passengers who used the station.

In 1971 an eccentric landlord use to keep a small zoo at the rear end of the pub, as well as a python inside. The collection included a puma, a lion, a leopard and a baboon. A number of incidents occurred involving these animals- the puma bounded into the public bar and frightened regulars and the leopard bit the landlord. Often he would be seen around Beeston, taking the bear for a walk at the end of a rope. The ‘zoo’ was eventually closed when a terrified elderly couple complained to the police after the baboon escaped, shinned up a drainpipe and tried to break into their bedroom window.

A while back we were contacted by the Landlord’s Granddaughter who shared a few family stories and photos with us relating to the zoo. Out of respect to the family their names will remain anonymous in the article. Rather than trying to rewrite the memories, we have simply displayed them below:

“The previous Landlord of the pub, who kept a mini zoo in the back yard was my Granddad and I recall the zoo and all of the animals. I can recall some fond memories and some not so fond memories of the zoo. I fondly remember in particular the snake he kept and the famous Ben, the beautiful bear.  My Granddad was in the Navy during the war and had quite a war in the South Pacific. Mum said that my Granddad was very business minded and used to charge for the workers to leave their bikes at the Vic. I forgot to ask where they worked but it was a regular thing and her and my Uncle used to collect the money from them.

My Granddad was always fond of animals and always wanted to collect the more exotic type. At the Victoria Hotel he use to have Piranhas on the bar, which he kept for entertainment. He use to feed them mice, for the entertainment of the customers. He used to love sitting with the old guys and playing dominoes too.

He also had a cage full of Monkeys which all died in a fire. It was apparently an electrical fault but I have heard rumours over the years that it was arson but that is only hearsay and as it was many years ago, we will never know the truth of the matter. It is very, very sad, whatever the cause. Monkeys were my favourite, apart from Ben the Bear. He was the most adorable animal you could wish to meet. Can’t say the same for the Baboon. As a child, I recall hating him, as he was pretty aggressive.

My Aunt recalls that Ben was eventually put into a cage as he became around 6ft in size, which is how I remember him. Also that the Baboon was kept indoors with them and slept in her dolls cot in her room when he was a baby. I really wish there were pictures of that. Again he grew and was caged. He was apparently quite aggressive with most people, except my granddad’s wife, who he took a liking too.  My Aunt also contracted TB back then and it was said that they thought it had been contracted from the baboon, she tells me.

The story of the Baboon escaping and banging on a neighbours upstairs window is true I am afraid. The lady and her husband were said to be terrified, especially as the husband was ill. The story says that Kenneth Clarke MP, was trying to have the law changed in regard to keeping wild animals and that he took this matter to parliament. There is a story about this too, separate to the baboon story. It says that Beeston constituents were in fear of the animals and many had applied for gun licences. The article names the neighbour and speaks of her having lodgers who were also woken up by the baboon banging on the window. Also, that she called the police more than once.

The other story I have heard  tells of the Leopard, biting my Grandfather. The Leopard was male and was 18 months old and on my Grandfathers shoulder, when a train passed by and hooted. This scared the animal, which nipped him and caused him to need hospital treatment. My grandfather was quoted as saying that he planned to buy a female companion for the leopard. The leopard had come from a zoo, in the south of England.

Apparently all of the animals were moved on to a ‘official zoo’ following a complaint by a lady, when the Baboon escaped. His name was Joey, if I recall correctly. I do know my Granddad was on ATV on more than one occasion, due to the antics. My Mum relayed to me that when he was asked what he had to say about the Baboon escaping and going into the neighbours bathroom. He replied in his usual flippant manner, that she was only bothered because the baboon wasn’t a male one. I don’t know how he got away with it sometimes, but he did”.


‘Last orders’. Ben the Bear finishes his pint on the bar at the Victoria Hotel- Photo Credit: Nottingham Hidden History Team.

Posted in Beeston, Nottinghamshire Suburbs | 2 Comments

Victorian & Edwardian Nottingham Through Time

New Book Available From February 2017

Victorian & Edwardian Nottingham Through Time

by Joseph Earp


In 1897, Nottingham was granted a city charter to coincide with the celebrations accompanying Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. By then Nottingham already had a history going back to at least the ninth century when the settlement was referred to as ‘Tigguo Cobauc’, which literally translates as the ‘House of Caves’. The Victorian and Edwardian era saw great changes to Nottingham. Rapid growth in its population meant the town had to adapt. Once known as the ‘Garden Town’, Nottingham quickly saw an urban transformation in areas such as housing, industry and transport.

Much of Nottingham’s heritage was lost to make way for progress, even more so with the Enclosure Act of 1845. This book, through photographs, postcards, documents and other images, reflects the changes Nottingham has seen from a beautiful garden town to one of the Britain’s leading cities. We can trace both the architectural development and the social impact brought about by these changes. This book records the historical changes by comparing Victorian and Edwardian photographs with their modern-day counterparts.

Available from all good book shops and also available on-line. The book can also be ordered directly from Amberley Publishing:


Telephone: 01453 847800

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The Goose Fair a Personal Perspective of a Non-native

by Ross Parish

When I arrived in Nottingham nearly twenty years this week – I remember because of the two things of I knew about of this new city before I arrived – obviously Robin Hood and perhaps less instantly recognised by outsiders, The Goose Fair – the later was on the week after I arrived!

At the time I lived in Beeston and not knowing the city very well or its bus routes decided to cycle from there to the city’s Forest recreation ground, which was quite a way and although I felt I had bitten off more than I could chew, my tiredness was replaced with euphoric amazement. A treat for all the senses.

There are other Goose Fairs – one at Tavistock, Devon and another at Hull but for its size and grandeur Nottingham’s Goose fair is unique. There are many fun fairs, many of them having older origins, but there is something special and atmospheric about this 700-year old event. The size is certainly one of them. It is certainly one of the best fairs to oversee sitting as it does in the Forest grounds with the plateau above overlooking it.

Started by Edward the First in 1284, it has survived cancellation during the plague of 1646, two world wars and its removal from the city centre in 1928. Now it sprawls across the Forest recreation ground, a large area of football pitches and park and ride car park, which is for most of the year rather bland and uninspiring, an island of colourful garish giddy excitement laying in a sea of white caravans and lorries.

Another reason is the anticipation, a week before the roundabout along Mansfield road, the ancient route to the city from North Nottinghamshire, a large white goose appears upon its plinth. A visual sign to its imminent arrival for no words are affixed to it (although occasionally it does inherit some comedy flotsam and jetsam, such as a large golden medallion.) This expectation is also built up by the entrance into the fair from this road. A long walkway like a procession route downwards with the senses excited by the visual delight of the fair looming on the horizon, the smell of kerosene and the sounds of ecstatic children crying ‘It’s the Goose fair!’

Even if like me you are not biggest fan of those heart pulsating spinning rides, there is much to interest. Taking that processional route one enters a strange row of infant orientated rides, a plethora of food stalls and some strange stalls.


The Nottingham Goose Fair with it’s many rides and stalls- Photo Credit: RB Parish.

Focusing on the strange stalls first, this is again where the unique nature of the fair is again underlined. Over the years there have been cacti stalls, clothes stalls, the fire service, the army and this year the Church of England each taking the chance to promote themselves! Showing that it’s not all fun at the fair but faith as well. I remember three stalls or rides in particular that year which I had never seen before.

One was a Guess Your Age stall. Here perhaps at the cheapest stall of all – a man in a booth with Guess Your Age over it. He called all and sundry and after watching for a while I decided to chance it. He’ll never get my age I thought…but lo and behold he was spot on and £2 was lost.

The second stall is a controversial one and a source of considerable debate between me and work colleague – a flea circus. I peeked inside to see a range of miniature chariots being dragged along and a large magnifying glass. I swear I saw real fleas but according to an expert I know there hasn’t been a real flea circus since the 1950s…does anyone know? I’ve never seen it again!

The third side, sadly absent over the last few years, was a memorable edifice, a large lorry with flashy bulbs with crowd pleasing slogans such as ‘ see the man with the widest gape’ or my favourite ‘ a piece of the Berlin Wall. Believe it or not.’, it could be any piece of wall I suppose but it hardly would be incredulous…could I believe in a ‘Japanese Octopus!’? Of all things! More easy to believe are the atrocious spellings. Inside one is witness to a strange selection of aborted animal foetusess (sic), stuffed ‘dare I say it’ fakes and antique relics from older exhibits slowly in many cases in a slow gentle decay. A giant was clearly made of paper mache over a chickenwire frame. One always left it laughing but by the look of the owner I am not sure that is their desire! Perhaps they got sick and tired at not being taken too serious! Again I had never seen a freak show until I had seen the Goose Fair.


One of the more peculiar sites at the Nottingham Goose Fair, a traditional ‘Freak Show’ with it’s many wonderful and weird sites to behold- Photo Credit: RB Parish.

The food stalls are a varied phenomenon as well indicating the ethic mix of Nottingham, however the minty mushy peas are the central food focus for those that come and the largest at the junction of the row and the main centre of the fair is always packed, sending the smell of peas and mint into the air from frothing vats…I’d never had minty mushy peas and now twenty years on it’s the only way I have them now!


Nottingham Goose Fair’s famous mushy peas being served up- Photo Credit: RB Parish.

Elsewhere the demand for the new has seen the traditional rides fall by the wayside, but again not here. Over the years, those rides have survived and so we can find Victorian and Edwardian originals such as the Helter Skelter, a cake walk, a waltzer and gallopers all of which have certainly working far into a second century. Together with these, one can encounter on and off, a wall of death and a hall of mirrors all traditional stuff!


A more traditional ride at the fair- Photo Credit: RB Parish.

The reason for the fair’s unusual name was due to Nottingham laying on a convenient point for goose traders from Lincolnshire, indeed over 16,006 to 20,000, were annually driven up from the fens for sale here. The sale of geese at this time being associated with the rather convenient, for those breeders, belief that eating geese on Michaelmas was considered lucky, and helped the consumer avoid debt.

Today the fair is rather lacking is geese, although I did spy two children with Geese hats! One tradition which every year appears to be threatened with disappearance is the Cock on a stick, chicken shaped (surely it should be a goose) sweet on a stick. The tradition goes back to the 19th century and has continued through one family. It is said that this confections came over from Italy with the Whitehead family. It’s a Goose fair tradition as our the crude jokes made about it no doubt!

Well obviously tastes change, few people eat geese, but perhaps one can could suggest 1752 was the result. This was when the calendar changed, and such the fair moved from 21st in September (ideal for a Michealmas goose) to the first Thursday in October (not ideal!) and perhaps this resulted in the shift from fowl to fun! Yet this is of course unimportant for the Goose Fair remains one of the greatest of England’s travelling fairs. Twenty years on I have not missed a Goose fair!

For more on traditional Nottinghamshire  customs and ceremonies check out Ross’s website at:

Posted in The Nottingham Goose Fair | 2 Comments

The Last Redcoats of Nottingham

By Michael Kirkby

Since the days of the English Civil War and the emergence of the New Model Army, the quintessential piece of kit for the British ‘Tommy’ was the redcoat. This garment was not merely a piece of clothing but over a 230 year period became a symbol of empire, discipline and global domination.

Men from all over the country and further afield wore this garment fighting in some of the most prolific battles in British history such as Blenheim, Yorktown, Waterloo and Ishandlwana. Whether in defeat or victory, the redcoat symbolised that one of the most modern thinking and professional armies was on the field.

However, this image was to change near an obscure Sudanese village called Ginnis on the afternoon of the 30th December 1885.

There had been conflict in the Sudan since four years earlier when civil unrest in Egypt by revolutionaries led Arabi Pasha, a colonel in the Egyptian Army to raise a 60,000 strong force to rebel against the rule of the Khedive, a pro-Western sultan.

Pasha seized Alexandria and set about arming the forts and blockading European trade which caused the British government to dispatch a 7,000 strong force under the command of Sir Garnet Wolseley (mainly consisting of Scottish regiments) from India to Egypt to bolster the Khedive’s forces.

In August 1882 a Britsh expeditionary force was landed under the overall command of Wolseley and moved onto the Suez Canal and onwards to Cairo.

The British first engaged Arabi’s forces as Kassassin lock on the 24th August to capture and control the main water supply to progress further into the desert. General Graham successfully captured the lock and chased Pasha’s forces back into the desert after the British cavalry made their famous moonlight charge on the Egyptian force.

The British continued to pursue Pasha and eventually came upon his main army at Tel-el-Kebir railway station where Pasha’s 25,000 strong force were entrenched . With only 13,000 men to challenge him , the British force charged Arabi’s positions in September 1882 and after close hand to hand fighting and delivering heavy firepower Arabi’s rebels broke and fled. On the 14th September the British cavalry entered Cairo and arrested Pasha bringing two months of campaigning to a close.

In 1883 a boat builder’s apprentice called Mohamed Ahmed proclaimed to be the Mahdi (Messiah), and God had instructed him to unite and lead the Sudanese to overthrow the British invader from all Islamic lands.

The Mahdi’s forces quickly flocked to him and his cause gathered momentum and within months he had tens of thousands of followers, mainly made up of Sudanese tribesmen, many of whom had served in Pasha’s rebellion.

Knowing that his power would grow the longer he was left un-challenged the British government decided to intervene in the Sudan and in March 1883 an Egyptian army under the command of a British officer, Colonel Hicks was dispatched to the Sudan to challenge the Mahdi and crush his rebellion. Hicks seriously underestimated the Mahdi’s capabilities and in April 1883 Hicks and 10,000 of his Egyptian allies were massacred in an ambush which practically armed the Mahdi’s forces with modern rifles and artillery.

Over the next few months in face of an ever growing enemy the British made plans to evacuate Khatoum and reinforced their key positions in the Sudan to repel the ever growing hostile situation.

In February 1884 a British force managed to repel a stronger Arab force who had entrenched themselves at El-Teb and ten days later General Graham’s force encountered the Sudanese force at Tamai. The battle was close with the enemy getting inside the British defensive squares but the quick thinking of the British quickly turned this near defeat into an enemy rout through superior firepower.

By this time General Gordon had now become besieged at Khatoum and requested that a rescue force under Sir Garnet Wolseley be sent out to relive him. Gordon, who had a vast knowledge of desert warfare and understood the mentality of the enemy made a special request that the relief force wore their red coats instead of khaki. The enemy it would seem were much more wary of the British redcoats as they associated them with a fierce fighting spirit on the battlefield. Gordon hoped that the sight of a redcoat force approaching would scatter the Mahdi’s forces quicker.

On the 16th June 1884 the Camel Corps found its route blocked by a much superior Dervish force at Abu-Klea. Unable to retreat or divert for fear of losing their access to water they force made a make shift fortress out of boxes and riding equipment. Again, the Dervish force swarmed around them and broke into the square but the Camel Corps was able to turn their Gatling guns into their own square and turn it into a killing ground which caused the Dervish force to break and scatter.

Following their victory at Abu Klea the desert column progressed forward and reaching a bend in the Nile where in January 1885 240 Sudanese and 20 men of the Royal Sussex embarked onto paddle steamers and went on alone to lift the siege of Khartoum. Following Gordon’s request that all troops were red coatees, the men had to borrow red coats from the Guards units in the Camel Corps before embarking. The next night however, the Sudanese force assaulted Khartoum and Gordon, along with the 4000 strong Egyptian garrison were massacred.

Wolseley attempted to retake Khartoum but the enemy fire was so strong that he was forced to retire. The number of the Mahdi’s forces facing Wolseley was so strong that he eventually ordered no further offensive movements in the Sudan and instead focussed on reinforcing his key positions.

Throughout the next few months the British engaged the Dervishes with limited success but to no real achievement. They routed the Derivsh force at Dhilibat Hill and made a valiant stand at Tofrek where they fought back against a much stronger Dervish force. Though far from defeated, a decision was made at the end of March that the British would evacuate the Sudan as they now had further problems on the North West Frontier of a possible Russian invasion and needed reinforcements to deter their advances.

Suddenly in June 1885 hostilities re-surfaced when The Mahdi died and was replaced by Khalifa Abdullah el-Taaishi, who wanting to make his own mark declared an invasion of Egypt to fully eject the British from Arabic lands.

In mid December 1885 the Dervishes marched upon the British held post of Wadi Halfa where an allied garrison at Fort Kosheh that was manned by Cameron Highlanders and the 9th Sudanese Regiment, managed to hold out against the 7,000 Dervish warriors.

Reinforcements were called upon from Cairo and two brigades consisting of the 1st Berkshires, the West Kents, the 2nd Durham Light Infantry and detachments of the Royal Artillery and Egyptian Artillery in the first brigade under the command of General Butler and the Green Howards (2nd Yorkshires), six companies of the Cameron Highlanders, elements of Sudanese and Egyptian Units and some detachments of the Camel Corps and 20th Hussars in the second brigade, were dispatched to the area under the overall command of General Grenfell to lift the siege of Fort Kosheh and rid the area of the Mahdi’s forces who had settled at the village of Ginnis and occupied an ancient fort at Kosheh. On the 15th December a British sortie from the fort were ambushed by the Mahdi’s forces and forced to retire and on the 20th the fort’s Gardner Gun was dismounted from its position by heavy artillery fire, making the fort unable to fire back onto the besiegers.


Typical uniforms worn by the British, 1882 – 1885.

On the 29th General Grenfell marched from the main British position at Firka and camped outside Kosheh and at dawn on the 30th December General Grenfell’s force marched out of their camp just outside of Fort Kosheh where the First Brigade spearheaded an attack on the high ground to the south of Ginnis.

The battle opened up at 6:10am when British artillery opened fire on the Mahdi’s positions taking them by surprise. The Camerons and 9th Sudanese who had been besieged in Fort Kosheh but had been relieved at the arrival of Grenfell marched along the Nile and headed directly for the village of Kosheh to the east of Ginnis to clear it of enemy inhabitants, all the while covered by a Gardner Gun mounted on the decks of the gunboat Lotus that ran parallel with their march up the Nile. They were then to proceed on and clear the palm groves of the enemy hiding there, during this time the 9th Sudanese attacked the Black Rock, a hilly crest which dominated the ground, and chased away the Dervish defenders, and swarmed down with a massive cheer to meet up with their Cameron allies securing the ground around Kosheh for the British and Egyptians.

The Camerons and Sudanese carried on their advance to Ginnis and found themselves joining up with the second brigade where they encountered the Dervish forces in a palm grove, the Dervishes swung round to attack the first brigade who found themselves attacked by spearmen. Whilst the Camel Corps took the brunt of the ambush, the 2nd Durham Light Infantry (wearing khaki) held out and eventually repulsed the Dervish attack. The first brigade drew up to attack the main Dervish camp and the second brigade was to attack Ginnis itself. With the attack on the Dervish camp successful the main Dervish force pulled back into the Atab Defile to its west but were routed by a bayonet charge led by the Mounted Infantry who dislodged their position and sent them fleeing into the desert. With the town firmly in Anglo-Egyptian hands the last stand in a house by the Dervishes was brought to a close with the use of a screw gun that made little work of the makeshift fort and its defenders. The fight for Ginnis was over by 10:00am with only slight casualties taken.

Following Ginnis the Mahdist forces were put to flight and their attempted invasion of Egypt was put down as quickly as it started. Unfortunately, due to the low casualty rate and effectiveness of the battle, Ginnis was not recognised as a battle honour until 1937.

However, sharing in this momentous milestone at this small Sudanese settlement were men from Nottingham and the surrounding areas. Though the Sherwood Foresters were far away fighting other battles for the empire, a number of men mainly in the Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) were present having been recruited from Nottingham in the years 1881 – 1883 when the regiment recruited primarily in the East Midlands area. The 20th Hussars, who were also present on the day and though wearing their standard blue cavalry jackets also have records of a number of Nottinghamshire men amidst their ranks in the Sudan at this significant battle.

The battle may have been small in comparison to other engagements in the campaign and by no means was this the end of the war. Further engagements against the Mahdist and Dervish forces would continue until the turn of the century, but the 30th December 1885 will forever symbolise the day the British army’s identity changed as they were forced to come to terms with the fact the red jacket, a symbol as well as a uniform, no longer had a place in a modern, industrialising army.

Sources used:

  • Brian Bond, Victorian Military Campaigns (Tom Donovan Publishing, 1994)

  • Henry Keown-Boyd, A Good Dusting: The Sudan Campaigns 1883- 1899 (Leo Cooper, 1986)


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