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A Christmas present surprise – 50 years later

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As an 8-year old boy I was obsessed with fossils and dinosaurs. One of my best Christmas presents from 1968 (indeed, I don’t remember any others) was the ‘How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs’. Originally published in 1960, it was full of badly drawn dinosaurs and many of its reconstructions and depictions were already out of date by the time I first opened my copy on Christmas Day. But I loved it anyway. Of course I quickly progressed onto more sophisticated geology book, but my father put it away in a box of my primary school things.

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Roll on 50 years to the Dippy On Tour exhibition and it seemed appropriate to include it as part of a little display of some of the books (there weren’t many) that were available to dinosaur enthusiasts back in the late-60s. But as we were putting them in a display case something caught my eye. On the front cover of my How and Why Wonder Book was some faint, but deeply embossed, handwriting. Somebody had used my book as a hard surface as they scribbled some notes on a sheet of paper. But what did it say? Tilting it at the right angle it was possible to make out several words and markings. ‘FEARLESS FRED’ and, below that, ‘KILBURN’. Nearby was ‘3/-‘. What could this mean?

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Today we have the internet, so this cryptic message did not remain a mystery for long. It turns out that ‘Fearless Fred’ fell at the 4th fence in the 1969 Grand National, on 29th March, and ‘Kilburn’ fell at the 22nd. But who was it that had lost at least three shillings that day? The handwriting didn’t belong to either of my parents, neither of whom had any interest in horse racing nor indeed gambled at all. So who else had access to my dinosaur book? Well, it so happens that I regularly took this, and other, dinosaur books to school where they were a great distraction to me. Therefore, in an attempt to get me to focus more on schoolwork, my teacher would confiscate these books and return them at the end of the day. So my teacher in second year junior class at ‘Saint Greg’s’ School in Cheltenham was probably the culprit. And their identity? She was called Sister Patrick (always referred to among my peers as Sister Paddy), and she was an Irish Nun. I remember that she was a bit fierce, but I never imagined that she gambled on the horses. It has been said that Father Ted was more of a documentary than a sitcom…