Cookies & Your Privacy
My history of Britain’s postal services, Masters of the Post, The Authorized History of the Royal Mail, was published by Penguin Allen Lane in November 2011 (appearing in paperback in 2012) and has taken on a fresh relevance that was scarcely anticipated ten years ago. The statutory public inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal at the Post Office is now attracting intense media coverage. Under the retired High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams, the inquiry must take stock of what is regularly being described as the worst miscarriage of justice in British legal history. It saw several hundred self-employed postmasters and postmistresses pursued in private prosecutions over cash losses that were actually the fault of a flawed computer system.
Work on the automation of post office counters was initiated late in 1995 and the installation of Horizon commenced in September 1999. As narrated in Masters of the Post, the system was regarded as less than a triumph at the outset: “Astonishingly, it was noted by the Board that even at this stage [ie the launch], after four years of development, ‘serious doubts over the reliability of the software remained'” (p. 666). The first criminal convictions of postmasters and postmistresses based on Horizon evidence were lodged in the system’s first year and others began to accumulate steadily thereafter, but it was not until a decade later that the deeply troubling nature of that evidence started to come under public scrutiny. (Private Eye magazine ran a first story about Horizon in September 2011.) Anyone seeking a full account today need look no further than The Great Post Office Scandal by Nick Wallis (Bath Publishing, 2021) — though the public inquiry may yet necessitate an extended edition.
Last August saw the publication of the paperback edition of my biography of Sir Frank Whittle, an extraordinary man who certainly deserves to be a household name in Britain (but assuredly isn’t), and whose feats as an aero-engineer helped to change the world. JET MAN: The Making and Breaking of Frank Whittle, Genius of the Jet Revolution, was published in hardback by Head of Zeus in December 2020 and remains an Amazon bestseller today. It chronicles the origins of the jet engine between 1929 and 1945. Whittle fired the first jet ever assembled in April 1937 — and given just a little more support from officialdom in Whitehall, his genius might have changed the course of the Second World War.
(To mark the 80th anniversary of the first flight of Whittle’s jet engine, on 15 May 1941, the BBC ran an excellent article about his life and achievements on its website: Frank Whittle: The underrated British hero who built a jet engine.)
Also published in 2021, finally, was a book that I began researching in 2011. It tells the remarkable story of an international banking business, founded in the middle of the 19th century and still going strong. Entitled Crossing Continents, A History of Standard Chartered Bank, it has been published — and beautifully produced with many fine illustrations, maps and charts — by Penguin Allen Lane.
Duncan Campbell-Smith’s sparkling new account of Standard Chartered Bank … is a door-stopping, desk-breaking heavyweight tome … of patient text and brilliantly evocative photographs. Campbell-Smith, a former banker and journalist, had access to Standard Chartered’s rich archive, and what emerges is work of painstaking scholarship. Multiple sources are woven together into a compelling record of imperial and post-imperial banking, the white men responsible and the lives they led. (Philip Augar in FT Weekend, 5-6 June 2021)
These three books and two others published in earlier years are all featured on this website.