The Way To Go Round Outer Space

Folks, before I get to the Outer Space, I feel I should share a little secret I found the other day, in case you find yourselves in Tunbridge Wells at any point. If you happen to be a bookworm like me, you’ll probably already know there are at least two fantastic secondhand bookshops there - one in the Pantiles; one a little way further up towards the station. (There’s also an Oxfam books which often yields results.) 

But I bet you didn’t know about another one, just up Neville Road, more or less equidistant between the two shops. This, at first glance, looks a bit rubbish, but go in. It’s the ‘remainder’ shop from the one in the Pantiles – all the weird secondhand stuff they couldn’t sell. And since London is close enough for lots of people to have visited the place, but too far away for anyone to be interested in keeping their souvenirs of  it, that weird stuff has a lot of London books. 

Even better, because it’s a remainder shop, everything is £2 or three items for a fiver. Don’t say I never share things with you. 

I spent fifteen quid in there the other day (the mathematicians among you will work out that that comes to no fewer than 9 splendid books…) and there’s stuff coming in all the time as they chuck things out of their main shop. I noticed a whole load of really obscure Woolwich stuff in the main shop – too expensive for me at their full price, but I’ll be surprised if anyone around Tunbridge Wells will be interested in it, so hopefully it will shuffle over to the two-quid shop ready for me – or one of you - to hoover it up…

One of the items I picked up was a brochure for the 1951 Festival of Britain. I got it mainly for my bulging ‘general London’ collection, not expecting anything about Greenwich to be  in there… 


It’s a fantastic piece of memorabilia, even if only for the wonderful space-age adverts for exotic things like tinned peas and a particularly gruesome, smoke-belching vision of Dagenham Ford Motor Plant, portrayed as some kind of Utopian dream. Just for IP, who requested it, here is that ghastly vision:

I enjoyed a flick through exhibitions on Modern Farming (how to get rid of all those pesky wild flowers and enjoy insect-free crops), Home Entertainment (two varieties, “by such devices as the radio, or one can entertain visiting friends”) and Transport (the joys of the steam engine) and turned excitedly to the next page The Way Around Outer Space:

Festival of Britain Brochure Cover

I find it extremely gratifying that the gateway to Outer Space in 1951 was Greenwich. At the very entrance to the Outer Space pavilion, the visitor encountered a life-size replica of the Greenwich Time Ball. The Astronomer Royal might have moved out to Herstmonceux  in 1949 but as far as the world was concerned, Greenwich was still the centre of space and time.

To be honest, there’s not much about it in the brochure, save an interesting use of tense in the blurb. “the famous Greenwich Time Ball, which used to give a time check at one o’clock every day so that ships in the Thames could regulate their chronometers.”

So does that mean that the time signal hasn’t been an unbroken event since its creation in the 1830s? I had assumed that the ball always dropped at 1.00pm, but this implies that the practice was stopped. Which begs the questions – when did the daily signal cease - and, more intriguingly, when and why was this charming practice  reinstated?

the attachments to this post:


Festival of Britain 3
Festival of Britain 3

Festival of Britain Brochure
Festival of Britain 1

Festival of Britain 1
Festival of Britain 1

Festival of Britain Brochure Cover
The Way To Go Round Outer Space

10 Comments to “The Way To Go Round Outer Space”

  1. Mary says:

    Phantom – if I had known you wanted a copy ….. but anyway … do you know about the Festival of Britain Society which publishes a regular newsletter of all sorts of things about the Festival … and two more things….there are people alive and well and living in Greenwich today (and probably known to you) who designed some of the festival structure…………. and if you want to see a real and local reference to the Festival, just go down and look at the Dome – and look at the Skylon – and look at the Dome of Discovery
    (talking of which somewhere out there in blogland is an article I did on the Dome of Discovery and Kidbrooke School)

  2. Peter says:

    is that the little bookshop up Neville street on the left as you head up the hill? as you leave the pantiles by the exit near the springs to cross the road and head for the oxfam shop and then the other good second hand shop, its up the hill on your right. Its a good little shop with lots of books on obscure subjects. but then all the second hand book shops in Tunbridge Wells seem to be very good with a lot of interesting books (I used to work in Tunbridge wells so could pop into them regularly).

  3. The very one, Peter. I didn’t know about it, but when the woman in the Pantiles shop saw the stuff I was looking at at full price she suggested I slink around the corner and find more of what they’re clearly quite keen to get rid of!

  4. Joe F says:

    Dear Phantom
    Regarding the tense used in describing the Greenwich Time Ball – I wonder if the wording in the Festival Brochure was meant to imply that ships no longer relied on the ball for accurate time signals, rather than that the Time Ball had stopped providing them (?).

  5. Could be, Joe – but it’s a very clumsy way of putting it if so…

  6. Ebspig says:

    Don’t forget that Greenwich was bombed to buggery, and the repair work took years, and years, and years. All sorts of Greenwich delights were discontinued. There was certainly a “new” red time ball put in position in about 1959, but I’m not sure if there had been a temporary black one for some years before that – presumably the Astronomer Royal’s office would have some records (they were still leaving Greenwich for Hurstmonceaux around 1951). The date the NMM took over the observatory buildings might be when the time ball was reinstated.

  7. Ebspig says:

    Sorry, didn’t put that very well. The moving of the time ball might have ceased when the Astronomer Royal officially left, and perhaps began again under the auspices of the NMM.

  8. Anon says:

    Hi Phantom, I’m a lurker and love your website.
    One suggestion- the link to comments could be moved to the bottom of the post. It’s more fun to read the article and then goto the comments, and not so much to scroll back to the top of the post to go the comments.
    Now I shall go back to try and get a life outside of the internet…


  9. IP says:

    Would love to see the Utopian vision of Dagenham Ford; any chance you could take a photograph of those pages? (Please).

  10. Your wish is my command, IP – you’ll find the pic in the main body of the text.