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Local Historical Figures

John Milton, writer
William Grenfell (Lord Desborough), Maidenhead mayor and all-round sportsman
Sir Sydney Camm, aircraft designer
William Nicholson, brewer
Sir Stanley Spencer, artist
William Herschel, astronomer and composer
Ivor Novello, composer, singer, actor and playwright
William Lassell, astronomer
Diana Dors, actor
Jemina Durning Smith, philanthropist

Picture of John Milton

John Milton (1608-1674)

John Milton was born in Bread Street in the City of London in December 1608. He was educated at St. Paul's Church and later at Christ College, Cambridge. After graduating, he stayed on to study for a Master of Arts Degree in preparation for the priesthood. However, finding himself in disagreement with the Church, he chose instead to dedicate himself to God through his poetry.

Thus, in 1632 he left Cambridge to go to live with his father at his house in Hammersmith to the west of London, and at Horton, a village in what was then Buckinghamshire. He then spent the next six years in seclusion, studying and writing the masques "Arcades" and "Comus", together with the more well-known pastoral elegy "Lycidas".

In 1638 he left for a period of travel in Europe, much of it in Italy. This was cut short by his perception that a civil war was imminent in his homeland, and so he returned to support the puritan cause against the bishops, through a series of polemical writings.

In the early 1640s, Milton set up his own little school, where he taught the sons of relatives and other wealthy acquaintances; the tract "Of Education" was a product of this period. It was about this time that he married for the first time, to a sixteen year-old named Mary Powell, who was to bear him 4 children, but died during the birth of the last one.

In 1649, Milton was appointed by the Commonwealth to be Secretary of Foreign Tongues, ostensibly as it required Milton's extensive knowledge of languages. In reality, Milton spent much of his time in the post writing propaganda for the Commonwealth and against the monarchy. The most well-known and celebrated of these was his Defence of the English People.

By this time Milton was feeling the full effects of what was probably glaucoma. So it is very likely he was never actually "saw" his second wife Katherine Woodcock whom he married in 1656, but who died only two years later. His sonnet "Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint" was probably written in response to her death.

The Restoration in 1660 meant Milton felt forced to go into hiding. Despite being later imprisoned, he was released soon after. He married for a third time in 1663, to Betty Minshull, and then retired to write in London and, briefly, Chalfont St. Giles. It was during these final years that Milton finally found time to write his most celebrated works: "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise Regained". These demonstrate his own anguish at the ultimate failure of both the revolution and the puritans' hopes for the establishment of Christ's kingdom on earth.

Milton died on 8th November 1674, and is buried in St. Giles Church, Cripplegate, in the City of London.

Milton's connection with the Borough

Historians disgree about exactly when Milton moved to Horton, but letters which have been found archived at Eton College, and which were sent by Milton from 1632 onwards to Eton, give Horton as his address. Also, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, sources at Cambridge and at his house at Chalfont St. Giles support the theory that Horton was a base for him.

At Horton, he lived in a house long since gone, but which is thought to have been on the site of what is now the Berkyn Manor Estate, and it was there that he wrote one of his most well-known poems, the pastoral elegy "Lycidas".

Milton's mother Sara died in Horton in April 1637 and a memorial stone was placed in the floor of the parish church. This was later moved to the Chancel in the nineteenth century, and now stands on one of the oldest of the church's walls.

In Spring 1638 Milton left Horton for his European travels.

In December 2008, the 400th anniversary of Milton's birth was celebrated through events around the country.

Photo of William Grenfell, Lord DesboroughWilliam Grenfell (Baron Desborough) (1855-1945)

William Grenfell was the son of Charles William Grenfell MP (1823-1861) of Taplow Court and inherited the house and the Desborough estate on the death of his father in 1861. Like his father he went to Harrow and Balliol, where he was President of both the University Athletic and Boating Clubs. He was one of the greatest all-round English sportsmen: oarsman and punter, long-distance track runner, cricketer, fencer, horseman, fisherman, big-game hunter and mountaineer.

He married Ethel Fane in 1887 and they had three sons and two daughters, Monica and Imogen. The elder two boys, Julian - well-known as a war poet - and Gerald William (known as Billy), were both killed in action in Flanders in 1915. The younger son, Ivo, was killed in a car accident in 1926.

Grenfell entered parliament in 1885 but after losing his seat went out to the Sudan in 1888 as a special correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. He returned to parliament in 1892 as a Gladstonian Liberal for Hereford City, but resigned in 1893 refusing to support Irish home rule. He returned to parliament again in 1900 as a Conservative MP for South Bucks but left the Commons in 1905 when he was raised to the peerage taking the title Baron Desborough of Taplow which referred to the Desborough Hundred, one of the three 'Chiltern Hundreds'. He was appointed CVO in 1907, KCVO in 1908, GCVO in 1925 and admitted to the Garter in 1928. The peerage became extinct on his death on 6th January 1945.

During the First World War he turned Taplow Court into a nurses' rest home. 1914 Desborough became President of The Central Association of Volunteer Training Corps which organised around a million Volunteers, either over-age for military service or in protected occupations, who provided essential labour in dockyards and munitions factories, helping to bring in the harvest or manning anti-aircraft defence posts.

Though Grenfell never achieved great political office, his commitment to public service was extraordinarily wide-ranging. It was said of him that "the multiplicity of his interests was indeed only matched by his industry and sense of duty" and he was reputed to have sat at one time on 115 committees simultaneously. He was Chairman of the Thames Conservancy Board for 32 years, President of the London Chamber of Commerce and President of the Royal Agricultural Society. He also became President of the Marylebone Cricket Club, the Lawn Tennis Association and the Amateur Athletic Association. He was both President and prime mover of the Olympics held in London in 1908.

The Desboroughs made Taplow Court (currently the headquarters of Soka Gakkai, an international Buddhist sect), into a highly fashionable society venue: Edward VII and Field Marshal Lord Kitchener were frequent visitors. In WWI the house was used as a nurse's home and as an evacuated girls's school in WWII.

He is buried in St. Nicholas's Church, Taplow.

Lord Desborough's connection with the Borough

Lord Desborough (known as Willy) was a genial and popular man very active in local affairs. He was High Steward of the Borough for 60 years from 1884 until his death. The Stewardship's original remit was "to enlist an eminent man who would take part in the public government of the town" (and be an influence at Court). By the time he took on the office it had become purely honorary. He nonetheless became an "invaluable servant and generous sponsor" and was an exceptional benefactor to the town throughout his life, particularly in the sale and lease of land for development. The Grenfells had been Lords of the Manors of Taplow and Bray for many years and the Grenfell estate (on the Berkshire side of the river) included Shoppenhangers, Ockwells, Kimbers, Philberd and Lowbrooks. From the 1870s to the end of the war a great deal of estate land was developed within the Borough and his name lives on in such places as Grenfell Park, Grenfell Road, Desborough Park and Desborough School. He was Mayor of Maidenhead 1895-97, including Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee year, and was made a Freeman of the Borough in 1918.

His skill at aquatic sports and his great love of the Thames meant he was often to be seen on the river rowing or punting. He was Steward of Henley Regatta for many years and was President and Captain of the Maidenhead Rowing Club for over 60 yrs.

Photo of Sir Sydney CammSir Sydney Camm (1893-1966)

Born in 1893, at the outbreak of war in 1914, Camm joined the Martinsyde aeroplane company at Brooklands and stayed throughout the war, learning the profession and developing his skills in aircraft design.

In 1921 Martinsyde went out of business and in 1922 Camm joined the Hawker Engineering Company, successor to the Sopwith Aviation Company Ltd. as a senior draughtsman. Within two years he was appointed Chief Designer and stayed with Hawker for 43 years.

In the 1920s and early 30s Camm designed the classic Hart 'family' of fabric and metal biplanes, putting Hawker in the front line of aircraft manufacture. At one time in the 1930s no fewer than 84% of RAF aircraft were of Hawker/Camm design. But it was clear that monoplanes were the aircraft of the future and Hawker and Camm decided to specialise in fast fighter aircraft.

In 1934 the Air Ministry issued specification F.36/34, for a monoplane eight-gun fighter. Built by Hawker it became the iconic Hurricane - 100 mph faster than anything previously flown. It was in full production at the outbreak of war in 1939 and with Mitchell's Spitfire, the Hurricane formed a major part of Fighter Command strength during the Battle of Britain. The News Chronicle hailed Camm as the man who saved Britain and he was made CBE in 1941. An RAF fly-past over London to commemorate the Battle of Britain was led by a lone Hurricane. Camm went on to design the Typhoon fighter-bomber which was heavily involved in the 1944 Normandy invasion, followed by the Tempest and Sea Fury, the ultimate in high-performance, piston-engined, propeller-driven monoplanes.

Since the advent of the jet engine in 1942, Camm had been working on the design of the highly successful jet-driven Sea Hawk, and then its successor, the swept-wing Hunter jet-fighter, which gained the world air speed record in 1953.

With the Hunter the possibilities of subsonic aircraft had reached a peak. Camm's designs for a supersonic fighter were never realised, but he joined Bristol Siddley Engines in developing the radical concept of VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) which, as the Harrier jump jet, revolutionised military aviation and warfare.

Sydney Camm was one of the last great individual designers, his intuitive feel for design more than compensating for any lack of advanced scientific training. The Times accurately called him "one of the most consistently successful designers the aircraft industry has ever had" who triumphed "without making a false step". Sir Thomas Sopwith credited him with being the greatest designer of fighter aircraft the world had ever known. Camm was knighted in 1953, and retired to Thames Ditton. He died in Richmond in 1966.

Camm's connection with the Borough

Sydney Camm was born in Windsor on 5th August 1893, one of twelve siblings, living at 10 Alma Road and became a pupil at the Royal Free School. His father was a journeyman carpenter and joiner, and Sydney took up a woodworking apprenticeship when he left school. As a schoolboy Sydney had avidly designed and constructed model aircraft. With his brother Fred, also a competent modeller and designer, who was to become editor of the famous "Practical" series of magazines, he supplied Herberts' Eton High Street Shop with high-quality models of biplanes and monoplanes advertised as "Will Really Fly" and "Will Rise from the Ground".

Their venture into more profitable private enterprise - selling direct to the Eton boys - was not appreciated by Herberts. Deliveries had to be made at night via a string lowered from the dormitories to avoid detection by the school authorities (and Herberts). Sydney was instrumental in setting up the Windsor Model Aeroplane Club where he and his friends built a man-carrying glider to which they added an engine and it actually flew in Dec 1912. There is a commemorative plaque on the wall of Athlone Square, Ward Royal, on the site of the workshop where the glider was built. There is also a commemorative plaque on the wall of No 10 Alma Road, and there are plans to erect a Hurricane replica in Windsor as a memorial. Many of his designs can be seen at the RAF Museum in Hendon.

[The photo of Sydney Camm is used with kind permission from Brooklands Museum Archive, courtesy of BAE Systems].

Picture of William NicholsonWilliam Nicholson (1820-1916)

William's father, Robert, was a grocer in Lincoln, where William was born, and was already a respected figure there before moving to Maidenhead on Christmas Eve 1826 and opening a general provisions store on Maidenhead High Street. After his apprenticeship to a chemist in Lincoln, William returned to Maidenhead in 1840 and began to develop the brewing sideline his father had begun in a small way at the back of the shop. William married Sarah Saunders, daughter of another High Street grocer in 1848 and they had four children.

When Robert died in 1853 (he is buried in Bray Churchyard) William took effective control (though his stepmother was the actual owner) of the much expanded brewing business registering it first as the Pine Apple Steam Brewery (named for the first pineapple grown in England at Dorney Court) but soon changing the name to Nicholson's Brewery and moving the works to the site of the stables and coach house of the demolished White Hart Inn. Nicholson's Brewery thrived and grew, changing its name once again to Nicholson & Sons in the 1870s when William's sons Robert, Frederick and Francis entered the business, by which time it was a major source of employment in Maidenhead. The brewery became the focal point of the town centre with its high brewing tower and accompanying chimney, and the imposing façade on the High Street.

When his sons joined the business William moved out of the house in the High Street adjacent to the brewery to The Elms on Castle Hill. The Elms became the Girls' High School in 1907 and though they moved out in 1957 (to become Newlands in Farm Road) the house remained in use until 2008 when the Youth Centre moved out in its turn. The property is now up for sale for re-development. By 1891 he had moved to Haydon Lodge on the south corner of Boyn Hill Avenue and Grenfell Road. This building also still exists, re-named Haydon Court and divided into flats.

He was a keen cricketer and footballer being a member of a Maidenhead team of 18 (!) which beat an all-England Eleven brought down by John Wisden (in which Wisden, Lillywhite and Adams took part) in 1853 in a two day match in Kidwells Park.

He was elected to the Town Council and appointed Alderman in 1876 but was never Mayor. He retired from the Council in 1904 the year that he donated £1,000 to buy the land on which was built the first free public lending library in Maidenhead, funded by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. This was replaced in 1973 by the present building.

His wife, Sarah died in 1881 and seven years later he married Elizabeth Cail 21 years his junior. He died on April 11th 1916 aged 96 and is buried in the churchyard of All Saints' Boyn Hill.

The Nicholson & Sons was bought by Courage in 1958 and the buildings demolished, but William Nicholson's name live on in the Nicholson Centre shopping precinct built on the site of the brewery, in Nicholson's Lane by the Methodist Church which once led into the brewery complex, and in the Nicholson Local Studies Room at Maidenhead Library, with his portrait at the entrance.

Photo of Sir Stanley SpencerSir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

Stanley Spencer was born in Cookham, Berkshire in 1891. He went up to the Slade School of Art in 1908 under the inspirational Professor Henry Tonks. In 1912 he returned to Cookham which he saw as "a kind of earthly paradise" and began work on the many paintings deeply rooted in his unique spiritual vision which featured the local countryside, houses and gardens in the village and local residents, friends and family.

At the onset of the 1st World War he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and was posted to Macedonia in 1916. He was never an official war artist but the most powerful record of his wartime experiences is the series of 19 paintings in the purpose-built Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, Hampshire, on which he worked almost continuously between 1926 and 1932.

In 1925 he married the artist Hilda Carline and they had two daughters: Shirin and Unity. Already recognised as a major talent for his work at the Sandham Chapel, his great painting The Resurrection, Cookham (set in Cookham churchyard and painted between 1924 and 1926) established his reputation. He began planning his Church House project, on the lines of the Sandham Chapel, but expressing his preoccupation with the sacredness of erotic love, an obsession which was to dominate not only his paintings but also his life. He became infatuated with another Slade-trained artist living in Cookham, Patricia Preece, whom he married in 1937 immediately after his divorce. The relationship was a disaster from the first but out of it came the series of uncompromising nude portraits of which the most famous is Double Nude Portrait: the Artist and his Second Wife. Although the Church House was never built, he continued to work on paintings for the cycle almost until the end of his life.

Between 1940 and 1946 Spencer worked on the eight completed epic depictions of merchant ship-building on the Clyde commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee. After the war he returned to Cookham, embarking on the huge Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta which remained unfinished at his death. He was knighted in July 1959, and died only 5 months later on 14th December 1959. The Royal Academy put on a major retrospective in 1980 and by 2000 Spencer was generally regarded as the most important British painter in the first half of the 20th century.

Spencer's connection with the Borough

Stanley Spencer was born on 30th June 1891 at Fernlea, High Street, Cookham, a semi-detached villa built by his grandfather. He lived in Cookham for most of his life, buying Lindworth, a fairly substantial semi-detached house in the centre of the village in 1932 and after the war moving into Cliveden View, a small house in Cookham Rise. He moved back to Fernlea (now Fernley) for the last year of his life. His father William was a music teacher and organist at Hedsor church described as "a patriarchal figure who cycled around Cookham reciting Ruskin aloud". Music was a dominant influence in the lives of the nine surviving Spencer children. Stanley's elder brother, also William, was a child prodigy pianist who went on to become professor at the Bern Music Institute.

The other dominant influence was religion: William senior's affiliation to the formal Church of England, balanced by the less straitlaced Methodism of his wife, Mary, who took Stanley to the Wesleyan Chapel in Cookham (now the Stanley Spencer Gallery opened in 1962 by the Friends of Stanley Spencer Trust). 'Pa', bearded and frock-coated, is recognisable in many of Spencer's later paintings. Both Stanley and his brother Gilbert showed early artistic promise and they were initially taught by Dorothy Bailey, daughter of the local artist William Bailey. After a year as a full-time art student at the technical school in Maidenhead, Stanley went on to the leading art school of the day in London, the Slade School of Fine Art, in 1908.

Always an oddity - only 5' 2" in height, already sporting his characteristic pudding-basin haircut and fringe at the Slade - by the 1950s, Stanley "biblically inspired and at times unstoppably loquacious" had become a highly visible and eccentric presence in Cookham, trundling his painting equipment around in a dilapidated ancient black pram, "his pyjama trousers peeping out underneath his trousers, his Woolworth's glasses tipping off his nose".

Knighted in July 1959 he died only 5 months later on 14th December, of cancer, in the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital at Taplow. His ashes are buried in Cookham churchyard.

[The photo of Sir Stanley Spencer is used with kind permission from The Maidenhead Advertiser].

Photo of Ivor NovelloIvor Novello (1893-1951)

David Ivor Davies was born on 15th January 1893 in Cardiff but, taking his mother's middle name as a surname, he changed his name to Ivor Novello by deed poll in 1927.

With his matinee idol looks, Novello was in demand as an actor on the London stage throughout the 1920s, as well as starring as the romantic lead in several silent films: D.W. Griffith's The White Rose (1923), Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926) Noel Coward's melodrama The Vortex (1927) and The Constant Nymph (1928).

In 1917 he was introduced through his patron Sir Edward Marsh, to Robert (Bobbie) Andrews, and the two became lovers and lifelong companions.

A brief foray into screenwriting for MGM in Hollywood was not a success and he returned to London where, in 1932, his play I Lived with You was produced in the West End. Novello enjoyed continued success as an actor and prolific playwright during the 1930s. Though his first major success writing musical theatre was Theodore & Co. (1916) a collaboration with Jerome Kern, it was during the 1930s and 40s, the golden age of British musical comedy, that he produced the string of hit musicals in which he himself starred: Glamorous Night (1935), Careless Rapture (1936), The Dancing Years (1939), Perchance to Dream (1945), King's Rhapsody (1949) and finally Gay's the Word (1950). Glamorous Night, The Dancing Years and King's Rhapsody were also filmed.

Apart from writing the music (words by the American poet Lina Guilbert Ford) for the WWI patriotic hit 'Till the boys come home' (aka 'Keep the home fires burning') which marked him as a gifted composer of popular melodies, it is the much-loved romantic ballads from his musicals that are his lasting legacy, such as 'We'll gather lilacs' from Perchance to Dream, the classic 'Waltz of my Heart' from The Dancing Years, still his most popular musical stage work, and 'Some day my heart will awake' from King's Rhapsody.

Novello died on 6th March 1951 of a heart attack at his London home. A memorial service at St. Martin-in-the-Fields on 28th May was relayed on loudspeakers to a crowd of thousands of mourners outside.

The number of commemorative tributes after his death testify to Novello's importance as an actor, writer and composer : the annual awards of the Performing Rights Society are named after him; there is a Novello Scholarship at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) ; there is a plaque in the actors' church of St. Paul's Covent Garden; in 1952 a bronze bust sculpted by Clemence Dane was unveiled in the rotunda of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, a theatre with which Novello had developed a close association and where many of his musicals were premiered; and in 1972 a memorial stone was unveiled in St. Paul's Cathedral.

Novello's connection with the Borough

He bought Munro Lodge, Littlewick Green, near Maidenhead and renamed it Redroofs, and it remained his residence outside London for the rest of his life. On his death Redroofs was sold at auction and became a convalescent home for actors.

Eventually, June Rose, the Principal of Redroofs Theatre School, bought the house and moved her London-based theatre school out to Littlewick Green. Redroofs Theatre School subsequently acquired a building on the Bath Road in Maidenhead and converted a cinema in Sunninghill into the Novello Theatre, but the Rose family still own and use Redroofs to train the next generation of performers.

William Herschel (1738-1822)

Born in Hanover on 15th November 1738, Friedrich Wilhem, as he was christened, was one of the six surviving children of Isaac Herschel, an oboist in the Hanoverian footguards. At the age of 14 Herschel also joined the guards as an oboist but in 1757, with his father's encouragement, he quit the army and left for London, accompanied by his elder brother Jacob.

After a couple of years in London Herschel moved north to take charge of the Durham militia band and was soon in great demand as a teacher and performer. He was a prolific composer and talented instrumentalist playing oboe, violin, cello, harpsichord and organ and writing solo works for all of them. Six of his twenty-four symphonies were recorded for Chandos in 2003 by the London Mozart Players. In August 1766 he took up the post of organist at Halifax parish church but was lured away within months by the offer of the organist's post at the new and fashionable Octagon Chapel in Bath. Herschel was joined in Bath by his sister Caroline, who stayed with him to the end of his life, recording and helping with his astronomical observations, and making several significant astronomical discoveries herself.

It was after he arrived in Bath that Herschel began to focus on his passion for astronomy. He read Robert Smith's Optics and Harmonics and James Ferguson's seminal Astronomy, and began to work on building his own telescope. He wanted to see and understand what he called "the construction of the heavens"; not just the solar system, but the entire large-scale structure of the universe. Frustrated by the limitations of current glass technology, he taught himself the skills of grinding and polishing telescopic mirrors, in between musical engagements, becoming pre-eminent in that field and internationally known and respected as a builder of large reflecting telescopes.

Throughout the 1770s and 80s Herschel had been making detailed observations of the heavens from the back garden of his house in New King Street, Bath, recording what he saw in his astronomical journals, but on 13th March 1781, while searching for "double-stars" amongst the brightest stars in the night sky, one in the constellation Gemini particularly caught his attention. This would turn out not to be a star, but the planet Uranus, for the discovery of which he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded the Copley medal.

International fame followed, attracting the attention of that fellow Hanoverian, George III who granted him a small pension for which he was only required to reside near Windsor Castle, and show the heavens to the royal family when requested. He and his sister Caroline moved into a house in Datchet and by October 1783 Herschel had built a huge 20ft telescope and begun the systematic deep sky surveys of the area visible from Windsor that took him and his sister twenty years to complete; an observational marathon that is unparalleled in the history of astronomy.

In 1788 he married Mary, the widow of his friend and neighbour John Pitt. Their only child, John Frederick William Herschel, was born in 1792. Herschel's health was beginning to deteriorate, damaged by long nights in the cold and the damp and in 1816 John gave up his career as a Cambridge don to return home and familiarise himself with his father's work, which he continued with great distinction after his death. But before he died in 1822 Herschel had one last major scientific discovery up his sleeve. As he was passing sunlight through a prism, while searching for a way to filter the rays of the sun so that he could observe sun spots, Herschel had noted that a thermometer placed just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum was registering a higher temperature than the spectrum he could see, and had correctly deduced that there was an invisible form of light beyond the visible spectrum - infra-red rays.

The veteran astronomer Patrick Moore has given him a fitting epitaph: "William Herschel was the first man to give a reasonably correct picture of the shape of our star-system or galaxy; he was the best telescope-maker of his time, and possibly the greatest observer who ever lived".

Herschel's connection with the Borough

Herschel moved to Datchet in 1782 to be near the King and his family in Windsor Castle, and stayed there for three years. Here he lived in a house which was part of a complex of buildings later called The Lawn, part of which is still there today. After living for a year at Clay Hall in Old Windsor, he and Caroline moved to 'Observatory' House (now demolished) on Windsor Road in Slough in 1786 from where he discovered two satellites of Uranus in 1787 (named Titania and Oberon by his son), Mimas and Enceladus two new satellites of Saturn, and coined the word asteroid, meaning starlike. He lived there until his death on 25th August 1822 and is buried nearby at St. Laurence's Church, Upton.

Herschel has given his name to craters on the moon and on Mars, to the William Herschel Telescope on La Palma, to the Herschel Space Observatory (the largest space telescope of its kind launched in 2009 by the European Space Agency), to streets, schools, research institutions and museums all over the world, and nearer home, of course, to the Herschel Memorial Observatory run by the Herschel Astronomical Society in the grounds of Eton College, to the Herschel Grammar School, Herschel Park and the Herschel Arms pub and indirectly to The Observatory Shopping Centre, all in Slough. And the undulating shape of the brand new Bus Station (2011) in Slough, representing waves of light, was supposedly inspired by Herschel's discoveries.

William Lassell (1799-1880)

William Lassell was born in Bolton, Lancashire on 18th June 1799. He established a highly profitable brewing business in Liverpool which enabled him to finance his fascination with making machinery and in particular the construction and development of reflecting telescopes. Innovators such as Lassell and Lord Rosse pushed reflectors far beyond the state of the art defined by the late 18th century astronomer William Herschel (qv). By mounting his telescopes on an axis capable of moving parallel to the equator Lassell gave astronomers the flexibility to follow a star through every part of its daily course. He also developed steam-driven machines for grinding and polishing large telescope mirrors able to match the quality of hand-polishing. One of his own telescopes had a huge 48 inch reflector which required two assistants for its operation. This was shipped out to Malta in 1861 partly to escape the polluted air of industrialised Liverpool and partly for better observation of the Southern hemisphere. Lassell offered it to the Melbourne observatory in Australia but they declined the gift, so after three years he brought it back to England. He didn't set it up again at the observatory he built at his new home in Maidenhead, Berkshire, preferring the more manageable 24 inch, and by 1877 it was just scrap.

Lassell himself made most of the components of his machinery with the assistance of his close friend James Nasmyth, a passionate amateur astronomer and one of the most skilled and versatile engineers of his generation. As an amateur astronomer Lassell's prime enthusiasm was observing the planets of the solar system and searching for new satellites. Very shortly after the planet Neptune was discovered in September 1846, Lassell spotted its largest satellite, Triton, and went on to discover another satellite of Saturn, Hyperion, in 1848 (almost at the same time as Prof. W.C. Bond at Harvard). In 1851 he identified two satellites of the planet Uranus additional to Titania and Oberon discovered by William Herschel in 1787.

In 1839 became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, receiving its gold medal in 1849, the year he became a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was President from 1870-1872. He died on 5th October 1880 at his home, Ray Lodge in Maidenhead.

Lassell's connection with the Borough

When he returned from Malta in 1864 Lassell bought Ray Lodge in Maidenhead, a Georgian mansion with an extensive estate - described as "one of the most lovely reaches of the river, with grounds sloping to the water's edge" - where he continued to work in the observatory and workshop he built in his garden. The estate was sold off for development in 1890 by the trustees administering Lassell's will. The houses in Lassell Gardens were built at this time. The house still stands on Ray Park Avenue but by 1932 had been divided into flats.

Diana Dors (1931-1984)

Diana Dors was born Diana Mary Fluck on 23rd October 1931 in Swindon. At 15 she enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and was almost immediately spotted and put into films, making her debut in 1946 in the thriller The Shop at Sly Corner. She was offered a ten-year contract with the Rank Organisation and joined the ill-fated Rank Charm School, which had been set up to discover and groom British stars to match Hollywood idols like Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. She changed her name to Diana Dors (her grandmother's maiden name) but despite a brief appearance in David Lean's Oliver Twist she was already being typecast as the sleazy blonde good-time girl in third-rate crime films.

Her screen career never really took off and her Rank contract lapsed in 1950. As with her most famous American counterpart, Marilyn Monroe, any possible acting talent was deliberately marginalised by a ruthless publicity machine only interested in the promotion of glamour, sex appeal and scandal. Her long platinum-blonde hair, full-lipped pout and pneumatic curves were fully exploited by her first publicist - Dennis Hamilton, the man she married in 1951. Fabricating a colourful private life not yet entirely a reality, he ensured that the gossip columns were provided with a steady flow of sensational stories, and created the image of the "blonde bombshell", Britain's first sex symbol in the American mould. The couple moved to Hollywood but a contract with RKO came to nothing when the company went bust. During the 1950s she appeared in a succession of uninspired luridly titled crime films with the one exception of Yield to the Night when she played the unglamorous character based on the murderess Ruth Ellis. The marriage to Hamilton ended in the customary blaze of publicity in 1957 and two years later she married a New York comedian, Dickie Dawson with whom she had two sons, Mark and Gary.

When her eight-year marriage to Dawson ended and she lost custody of her two sons, she married her third husband, an actor, Alan Lake, in 1967 and they had one son, Jason. She was declared bankrupt that year despite having been paid £35,000 in 1960 for a 12-week serialisation of her memoirs by the News of the World. They were pretty racy for their time, prompting the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Geoffrey Fisher, to denounce her as "a wayward hussy".

During the 70s there were brief revivals in her acting career, notably playing a brassy widow in Three Months Gone at the Royal Court Theatre and a good part in Jerzy Skolomowski's film Deep End, but a television series Queenie's Castle, despite being written for her by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, was unsuccessful and her acting and screen career was in terminal decline. But she remained a celebrity, publishing further instalments of her sensational memoirs and appearing as a regular and popular guest on television shows like Jokers Wild, Blankety Blank and Celebrity Squares. Even being by now over 15 stone didn't stop her fronting a diet and nutrition slot for TV-AM in 1983! Though she had survived a near-lethal attack of meningitis in 1974, two operations in 1982 and 1983 couldn't stop the cancer that killed her in 1984. Her toughness and resilience, courage and cheerfulness in the face of adversity earned her widespread admiration and affection and she was genuinely mourned on her death.

Her connection with the Borough

She and her first husband Dennis Hamilton first moved to Brook Cottage on Brayfield Road in Bray in 1954, later moving to Woodhurst, a vast 89-roomed mansion on Ray Mead Road, Maidenhead which she and Dennis converted into rented-out flats, building for themselves a luxurious penthouse, straight out of a Hollywood film set, over the marble swimming pool in the grounds. The late-night celebrity parties which took place in Bel-Air, as they named the penthouse - Petula Clark and the Kray brothers were guests - became the stuff of local legend.

The late 50s saw the rise of coffee bar culture and they turned one of the shops on the Colonnade in Maidenhead High Street into the El Toucan coffee bar. It was managed for a year by a local theatrical costumier called Henry Greene who described it as all done in Hawaiian style, "The walls were covered in half-cut pieces of bamboo and there were little nooks and crannies done in crazy paving where you could sit and drink your coffee. Right at the back, before you went into the kitchen, was the area where the toucans lived. It was very upmarket."

In 1956 Stanley Spencer met her at a cocktail party given by Sir Charles and Lady Ellis of Dial Close, Cookham. He wanted to paint her, though it came to nothing, saying "Diana had a simple beauty. Her pouting lips are particularly pretty."

She and her third husband were close friends of Louis Brown, the owner of Skindles nightclub where she celebrated her 50th birthday.

She died on 4th May 1984 at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Windsor over 1,000 friends and admirers attending her funeral. She was buried in Sunningdale, where she made her home in later life.

Picture of Jemina DurningJemina Durning Smith (1843-1901)

Daughter of a Manchester cotton merchant, John Benjamin Smith, who went into politics in 1835 becoming the founding Chairman of the Anti-Corn Law League, Jemina was born in 1843 and her sister, Edith, in 1844. Their mother was Jemina Durning the co-heiress of a wealthy Liverpool merchant and landowner. The parents were devout Unitarians and the sisters were generous patrons of the Unitarian cause, both endowing scholarships at the Unitarian College at Manchester.

In 1848 the family moved to London where John Smith became Liberal MP for Stirling, but in 1852 he took over Richard Cobden's seat in Stockport - a fellow reformer - remaining 22 years as MP. The family divided their time between London in winter and Ascot in summer, where in 1860, John Smith had bought King's Ride, a former royal hunting lodge, from Prince Albert and a large new house was completed in 1863 which is still lived in. When their parents died, Jemina stayed with her married sister when in London and kept on King's Ride as the country house where she and her sister and brother in law, Sir Edwin and Lady Durning-Lawrence, held an annual party on August Bank Holiday for the Unitarian clergy and Sunday School teachers, with special trains to bring all the guests from London.

Jemina had suffered permanent spinal paralysis from a disease in early childhood and was always in uncertain health, and she was a particularly generous donor to medical charities. She gave £20,000 to Great Ormond Street Homeopathic Hospital in 1875, where a ward was named after her, and where she was a regular Visitor. She also gave substantial donations to the Royal Sea-Bathing Infirmary for Scrofula at Margate and the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic in Bloomsbury.

Jemina's interest in libraries was probably sparked by her brother in law, Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, who was Library Commissioner for Lambeth. In 1887 Jemina contributed the considerable sum of 10,000 guineas towards the building of a library there. The Lambeth Durning Library, in its splendid Gothic-style building, was opened in 1889. It continues to be a functioning library with Jemina's commemorative plaque still in place near the entrance. The following year, the Ascot Durning Library was opened in Winkfield Road.

Jemina Durning Smith died suddenly in 1901 and is buried in the family vault at Kensal Green.

Her connection with the Borough

The Ascot Durning Library opened in 1890 in a building that was originally a china shop cum Ascot Post and Telegraph Office which Jemina bought in 1889 for £700. The Free Public Libraries Act of 1855 had made it possible for councils of more than 5,000 residents to raise a halfpenny rate to finance public libraries, but because Ascot had fewer than 5,000 residents Jemina had to provide an endowment. The library was run by a Trust and Management Committee of local worthies who were responsible for leasing out the considerable number of properties she had bought in the area to provide an income. The librarian lived in a flat upstairs and the library was open six days a week for everyone over 16 (though ladies were banned in the evenings) and counted servants, labourers, tradesmen, teachers, nurses and the gentry amongst its users. Between one and three pennies was charged to borrow a book. Both fiction and non-fiction was stocked as well as reference books, magazines and newspapers. There was also a smoking room where chess, dominoes and draughts were available, and classes in "carving, bent ironwork and cooking" were held.

After 116 years in the same building the Ascot Durning Library moved in 2006 to the Ascot Racecourse buildings. The management was taken over by the Royal Berkshire County Council in 1959 and it is now financed and managed by the RBWM. Also, the new Sixth Form library at Charters School in Ascot is now named after Jemina, as it had a grant from the Ascot Durning Trust.

After Jemina's death her sister and her husband stayed on at King's Ride, and helped Mrs. Liddell (mother of the Alice Liddell immortalised by Lewis Carroll), to establish the Royal Victoria Nursing Home at Ascot (RVNH). When Lady Durning-Lawrence died she left a legacy to the RVNH Trust and also £5,000 to the Edward VII Hospital at Windsor.

[We would like to acknowledge the book "The Ascot Durning Library : Founded 1890" by Christine Weightman both as the source of information and of the picture for this article].

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Modified: 2015-05-05
Published: Wed, 05 Aug 2015 16:24:01
Author: Allison Helyer
Editor: Allison.Helyer
RDCMS ID: 23863