LIEUTENANT WILLIAM BARNARD RHODES-MOORHOUSE VC RFC: a Northamptonshire hero by Enid Jarvis and Michael Heaton (Spratton Local History Society 2015 82pp ISBN 9780954985752) £12.50
William Rhodes-Moorhouse was the first member of the Royal Flying Corps to receive the Victoria Cross, for his bombing raid on German supply lines during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 and for his heroic flight back to the British lines while fatally injured. He made the bombing mission alone in a reconnaissance biplane which had been adapted to make space for the bomb and its basket, and was well aware of the extreme danger of the raid. Since boyhood he had been a fearless speed-addict and tinkerer with aeroplanes, cars and motorbikes. He gave up flying in 1913, but volunteered for the Royal Naval Air Service and then for active RFC service in 1914, although he could have served at much less peril as an engineer. His family was allowed to repatriate his body to England, a very rare occurrence in the Great War; apparently he had requested this while dying in France (his son was joined the RAF in 1937 and died in the Battle of Britain in 1940.)
Much of this well-produced and illustrated book is about the Rhodes-Moorhouses’ glamour and wealth, the family’s 30-year stay in Northamptonshire during the Edwardian years, and their elder son’s adventures after a privileged education. Air stunts and accidents were rivalled by car crashes and convictions for driving offences, one of them fatal to a ploughman leading horses along a Gloucestershire road. Magistrates seem to have been serially lenient with early motorists. Rhodes-Moorhouse was the first flier to cross the Channel with passengers, one of whom was his new wife on their honeymoon. They ended up in a hedge near Ashford, sustaining bruises. The public’s passion for aviation displays and derring-do fliers is shown developing in Northamptonshire before the war, but waning by 1914.
This is a picture of a pre-war county society of the rich and privileged, written in an unquestioning voice. The colonial Rhodes and Moorhouses, having inherited their money from the New Zealand whaling industry and from land, moved easily between rented grand houses in Northamptonshire and seem to have fitted in with the hunting aristocracy and gentry. An aside mentions that they hired Emily Wilding Davison, later the suffragette who died at the Epsom Derby in 1913, as governess to their children for a time. The children did not find her much fun. This is a great book for anyone fond of Northamptonshire or interested in ‘those magnificent men’ or in early motoring. You really couldn’t make it up.
Sally Sokoloff is honorary lecturer in history at the University of Northampton and has worked extensively on aspects of the Home Front in the First and Second World Wars. Her paper ‘The Home Front in the Second World War and local history’ was published in The Local Historian in 2002.
WATFORD: A HISTORY by Mary Forsyth (History Press 2015 viii+117pp ISBN 978 0 7509 6159 2) £14.99
Mary Forsyth’s stated aim in writing this book was to plug a gap and produce a ‘recent straightforward history of the town [Watford] and its history ... for the general reader’. This small volume is well-produced and its appearance is enhanced by neat line drawings, largely of buildings, as part of its chapter headings. Starting from Domesday, exploring Tudor and Stuart times, and concentrating on aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Watford, the author has produced a simple chronological and factual account of historical events and characters. For this she draws heavily on the Victoria County History, the classic county histories of Chauncy, Clutterbuck and Salmon, and a plethora of more recent publications including local newspapers.
This account may well satisfy the ‘general reader’, but it does not provide a good model for local history publication, being largely devoid of any recent and original analysis and research. Given the lengthy timeline of the book, it is very surprising that it includes only one map (of the late-eighteenth century parish); a map of the railways is an obvious and unfortunate omission, given their importance to the town. The author does not attempt to compare and contrast the history of Watford with that of other similarly-sized Hertfordshire towns. For example, Benskin’s brewery is mentioned briefly, but could have been discussed in relation to the importance of the malting and brewing industry across the county as a whole.
Early chapters mention many sources of important documentary evidence, but miss the opportunity to explain their raison d’etre and their value to local historians. Each chapter employs endnotes but while these are reasonably extensive many of the referenced items fail to appear in the book’s rather truncated bibliography. Similarly, the index is not extensive and concentrates largely on the later chapters of the book. The volume is illustrated with a single block of 28 pages of black and white photographs, mostly of twentieth-century street scenes.
Mary Forsyth has probably managed to achieve her stated aim, but a final question has to be asked. Why does this twenty-first century history of Watford stop at 1973 with the arrival of Elton John as chairman of the town’s football club?
Peter Bysouth is a local historian from north-east Hertfordshire, whose nineteenth-century research interests include developments in education; marriage horizons; and the small towns of the region’s extra-urban matrix.