Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Rusty angels

Cast iron headstones, typically nineteenth-century, were popular in some Breton graveyards. This example is in the churchyard at Jugon Les Lacs.

These crosses first appeared in the eighteenth century, although most survivors are from the following century. They are often difficult to date as designs were reused, and the pieces themselves are not generally dated. They were not always erected at the time of the death marked on the grave, which adds to the challenge. Production seems to have ended in the 1930s.

Monday, 30 August 2010

From the archives: kamptulicon

One of the joys of research is looking for one thing only to find something totally different. While browsing through a Deptford directory, I came across mentions of something I'd never heard of: kamptulicon. It turned out to be a shortlived but intriguing product which was even considered for battleships!

A local directory of 1874 lists three Deptford manufacturers of kamptulicon floor cloth: a rather distinctive-sounding product which I hadn't come across before. Indeed, the product was an interesting one which was fated to enjoy only relatively brief popularity.

Kamptulicon was patented in 1843, by Elijah Galloway; presumably the same Galloway who invented the feathering paddlewheel and various engines such as a non-dead centre engine designed to be started in any position by a single crank. By the 1850s kamptulicon had appeared at the Great Exhibition and was used in the Houses of Parliament. The product seemed amazing: a soft, warm flooring material which deadened sound and was easy to clean. In fact, it was even considered as a lining material for iron warships:
Experiments were conducted at Woolwich with some plates rivetted together like the sides of an iron ship, these plates being lined inside with cork and india-rubber, (the first idea of a cofferdam). It was expected that this preparation, which was known as "kamptulicon", would close up after shot had passed through and prevent ingress of water. This was found to be quite correct, but the egress of shot on the other side had quite the opposite result.
However, even for conventional household use there was a significant drawback. Kamptulicon was manufactured by mixing powdered cork with gutta percha (India rubber), then coating it with linseed oil; but rubber was expensive, and rising in cost. Thus, as Granville Sharp commented in his Prize Essay on the application of recent inventions collected at the Great Exhibition of 1851, to the purposes of practical banking,
For quietness and durability the "Kamptulicon Floor Cloth," manufactured by Walter & Gough, is peculiarly distinguished. The price, however, is very high.
In 1863 an alternative material, linoleum, was patented by Frederick Walton. Linoleum was cheaper, since it used oxydised linseed oil rather than rubber. Faced with this competition, kamptulicon went out of fashion and before too long, out of production. However, during its period of popularity, Deptford seems to have supported a surprising amount of its manufacture.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Random statue 10: Jehan de Beaumanoir

Jehan de Beaumanoir is best remembered for leading an emprise in the fourteenth century. Captain of Josselin, he was caught up in the War of Succession as a supporter of Charles de Blois. English supporters of John de Montfort, on the other side, held the neighbouring town of Ploermel. They reached a truce, apparently broken by English soldiers mistreating Breton peasants, so he challenged them to a chivalric combat.

De Beaumanoir and his thirty Bretons faced a mixed team of Englishmen, German mercenaries and just four Bretons. For all the mention of 'chivalry', it was pretty brutal: weapons included swords, spears and axes. Six of his men died, and nine of his opponents. However, de Beaumanoir won and his reputation was made. Today, his statue stands proudly surveying Dinan.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Les Gavottes

A very Breton biscuit is celebrating its ninetieth birthday this year. Les Gavottes are made of crispy crepes; my favourites are coated with chocolate.

The first Gavottes were made in Quimper in 1920, and although the business has expanded from one woman's bakery to a large business now based in Dinan the recipe has remained unchanged. Legend has it that in 1886 a forgotten crepe was rescued from the fire at the last minute by one Marie Thérèse Cornic, folded up and reborn as a gavotte. A few decades later, commercial production would begin and the rest is, well, history.

Monday, 23 August 2010

From the archives: London's broken bridge

Since this article was written, Blackfriars has become something of a construction site. I won't go into the details here, but direct you to the excellent coverage on London Reconnections.

Just alongside Blackfriars Bridge is a series of pillars, ending with a rather grand crest and the name 'London, Chatham and Dover Railway'. Every time I've done a tour of London, the guide has offered a different explanation - most often they seem to think that the bridge was never finished.

However, the bridge was in fact completed and opened in 1864 to take trains to St Paul's Station - now Blackfriars Station. From the 1920s, use of the bridge declined as much of its railway traffic moved to other stations. Finally, it was too weak for modern trains and the decision was taken to dismantle it as recently as 1985. Since removing the pillars risked destabilising the neighbouring Blackfriars Road and Railway Bridges, they remain in the river to mystify passers-by.

Dodgy bridges weren't the railway's only problem: it was also known for its poor carriage stock and poor punctuality. Its absorption into a new company in 1923 was therefore perhaps a welcome change! In fact, it had already effectively gone through a merger with its competitor, the South Eastern - which ran trains through Deptford - in 1899. However, to avoid paying the stamp duties a proper amalgamation would have incurred, the companies remained separate but were both governed by one Managing Committee which directed them and pooled their incomes. This tax-avoidance scheme remained in place for 24 years until the two railways, the Managing Committee, and various other lines formed the Southern Railway.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Morning at the market

The Marche des Lices in Rennes is one of Brittany's best food markets and the third largest in France. It's had plenty of time to perfect things, though: it dates back to 1622.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Exploring Postman's Park

You may have noticed a new page link at the top of the right-hand column, called 'Postman's Park'. Older readers will remember that a while ago, I did a series of posts looking at the stories behind the plaques on the Watts Memorial. This tribute to 'ordinary heroes' is in Postman's Park, a small City of London park near St Paul's Cathedral, and contains a series of plaques each commemorating somebody who died while attempting to save others.

Most of the plaques are Victorian and Edwardian, although after a long hiatus the most recent plaque was added last year. They tell their tragic stories in a sentence; I wanted to find out a little more. The series was the product of that research.

The new page is a way of making that series more accessible. It lets you explore the plaques by theme, or find particular plaques using the index of names.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

London Particulars

New Cross Road has a lovely new coffee shop, London Particular. It even has its own London Particular blend of coffee. But where does the name come from?

There were two London Particulars: the thick smogs which enveloped the city and an equally thick pea soup named after them. The tribute was apt: Londoners referred to their fogs as 'pea-soupers'. In Sherlock Holmes' Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, Dr Watson described one thus:
In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London. From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses ... when, for the fourth time, after pushing back our chairs from breakfast we saw the greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops upon the window-panes, my comrade's impatient and active nature could endure this drab existence no longer. ...

"Look out of this window, Watson. See how the figures loom up, are dimly seen, and then blend once more into the cloudbank. The thief or the murderer could roam London on such a day as the tiger does the jungle, unseen until he pounces, and then evident only to his victim."

It's hard for those of us brought up with relatively clean air to imagine what these smogs were like. A thick yellow blanket of coal smoke mixed with damp air, they literally killed people. Even for those not choked by them, there was the terrifying experience of not being able to see vehicles, familiar landmarks, or the ground beneath one's feet. Londoners got lost, fell over, and relied on street lamps burning all day to help them navigate. The Victorian city had streetlights: the smog was what gave its darker side that ominous gloom.

These fogs persisted into the twentieth century, as houses, factories, gasworks and power stations continued to burn coal. The Great Smog of 5-9 December 1952 killed 4,000 people in a matter of days, and perhaps three times as many in total. There was no escape: it made its way indoors, polluting rooms and causing or aggravating respiratory conditions. Some people also died from falling into the now-invisible Thames. Outdoors, people covered their noses and mouths with handkerchiefs or scarves. Performances were cancelled due to poor visibility and coughing audiences, road transport became impracticable, schools closed. At its thickest, visibility was so low that people couldn't see their own feet. Nickel in the Machine has a collection of photographs, with eye-witness accounts in the comments.

Parliament was prompted to act, and the Clean Air Act 1956 marked the beginning of the end for the genuine London Particular. It lives on in benign form as a cultural reference, an evocation of Holmesian atmosphere, and a rather nice coffee shop.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Sign of character

No prizes for guessing that this slightly creepy sign is on a pub named The Bell, but you do get bonus points for identifying the location.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

From the archives: Plantation Garden, Norwich

One of my favourite gardens, this urban oasis is always worth another visit. It's also taking part in Heritage Open Days on 11 September, when you can enjoy tea and cake on the lawn.

As someone whose mere touch seems to make plants wither and die, I always admire those who manage to create attractive landscapes. I was especially impressed by the Plantation Garden in Norwich: this Victorian quarry garden is being beautifully restored to create an astonishing secret space in the heart of the city.

The site was formerly a chalk quarry, with two kilns to convert the chalk into lime for building mortar. However, when cabinet-maker and upholsterer Henry Trevor bought the land in 1856, he transformed it into a garden complete with all the most fashionable Victorian features: terraces, palms, carpet beds, water features, shrubberies, follies and ruins. After all, Trevor's furniture business depended upon his awareness of the latest fashions.

Trevor planned the garden himself, and the fountain in particular is unique. He also used various building materials, creating intriguing features, detail in the garden's walls, and 'ruins'. Gardeners were employed to maintain the planting and the extensive glasshouses.

As well as enjoying the garden himself, Trevor welcomed its use for charitable purposes including flower shows and bazaars. It was overlooked by his villa, now the Beeches Hotel.

Sadly, the garden began to change soon after his death: the palm house was dismantled by 1912. Its decline accelerated after the Second World War, and when restoration began in 1980 it had become completely overgrown. The Plantation Garden Preservation Trust, though, is doing amazing work in recovering this very special Victorian space. Although some features such as the palm house, with its boilers and hot water pipes, are still absent, the garden's style and atmosphere are once more apparent.

Practical info:
Earlham Road, Norwich (entrance beside the Beeches Hotel).
Open daily, 9am to 6pm.
Teas, with homemade cake, are served on summer Sundays, 2.30-4.30pm.
Admission: £2
Much of the garden is wheelchair-accessible.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Home and Colonial Stores, Lewisham Way

Work on a shopfront in Lewisham Way has revealed this sign for the Home and Colonial Stores. It must predate 1961, when the company changed its name to Allied Suppliers, although we could have guessed that from the style of the sign.

At The Library of Experience, Emily Henson describes shopping in this store:
There was one [smaller shop] 'Home and Colonial' where we'd get nice rashers of bacon. They served you from behind the counter wearing white overalls and a hat because of the food. They didn't wear gloves but would pick up the bacon with tongs to put it on the scales.
Home & Colonial were founded in 1885 by tea-buyer Julius Drew and Liverpool shopkeeper John Musker. Drew had been only 22 when he returned from the Far East, where he had bought teas for his uncle; the new shop business was so successful that he retired aged 33. Although tea was a key product for the stores, they also sold dairy products, sugar, bacon and ham. The first store was in Edgware Road, London but they expanded throughout the country, with 500 stores at the turn of the century. A merger with Liptons and others in 1924 brought together over 3,000 shops although they kept their different names. Chain stores competing on price long pre-dated the supermarkets!

Among the chain's chairmen was Lancelot Royle (1948-1964), who had been a talented sprinter in his youth. At the 1924 Paris Olympics, he won a silver medal in the relay; also in the team was Harold Abrahams of 'Chariots of Fire' fame. The company enjoyed great success under his control, but declined in the face of supermarket competition and eventually disappeared from the high streets.

However, only a few traces of the stores, such as this one, remain. A more lasting monument to Julius Drewe (he added the 'e' later in life) is Castle Drogo. A genealogist told Drewe that he was descended from the Norman Drogo family of Drewsteignton, Devon. He reacted as any fabulously wealthy eccentric might: by building a granite castle, Britain's last, near the village. It was designed by Lutyens and completed just a year before Drewe's death in 1931. Local people nicknamed it 'Margarine Castle' in tribute to the source of hs fortune. In 1974, fearing that a Labour government would introduce a wealth tax, his family gave the castle to the National Trust: the first twentieth-century building to be acquired by them.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Brighton building, 1933

A closer look at the Allied Irish Bank in Marlborough Place, Brighton reveals lots of non-financial detail. First, the clock with its fishy bracket is dated 1933 - the year the building was erected. (Click here for a photograph of its predecessor.)

Above the windows are reliefs by Joseph Cribb depicting various construction trades (the architect is modelled on none other than John Leopold Denman, actual architect of this building). Cribb was Eric Gill's first apprentice, working with him from 1906 until Gill's death in 1940, although from the 1920s he also undertook work on his own account. He had moved with Gill to Ditchling where they were founding members of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, a Catholic artists' colony near Brighton. When Gill moved away, Cribb took charge of the stonecarvers' workshop and would train his own apprentices.

The construction theme of these reliefs reflected the building's original purpose as the premises of the Citizens Regency Building Society. In a sense, it hasn't strayed too far from that use today - but the apparent incongruity of these sculptures perhaps reminds us that there are important differences between banks and building societies.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Weddings for free!

St Luke's Church in Evelyn Street was built in 1870-72; it had its own parish from 1873, but is united with St Nicholas now. In 1895 it found a novel way to serve its poorer parishioners:
Initial expense is often a serious obstacle to young people who contemplate matrimony, but there seems to be a good time ahead for them. Following a free education, free breakfast, and other enlightened reforms, comes the announcement of free matrimony. The Rev. J. H. Grieg has decided to perform the marriage ceremony on four days each year at St. Luke’s church, Deptford, without fees of any kind, no charge being made even for the banns. The first marriages under the scheme were solemnized on Easter Monday, and followed by similar services on Whit Monday and the last Bank Holiday.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Ghost signs (41): Hounslow Central

W Emmett, Builder, Decorator certainly chose a prime position for his advertisement. It's just behind the platform at Hounslow Central, visible to trains entering and leaving the station as well as to waiting passengers. This wasn't the first sign on the site, either: there are traces of others visible.

Emmett's business doesn't seem to exist any longer, so won't be complaining that foliage has been allowed to grow and partially obscure the view. The leaves seem to be fairly recent: an image in the Ghost Signs archive, taken three years ago, shows the sign virtually unobscured.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

From the archives: legends of a Breton village

This time two years ago, I was on holiday in Brittany. As a break from the more concrete history I usually look at, I turned to the local myths and legends.

I’m currently staying in the village of Langourla. Although small, it has several chapels in addition to its church. One of these, St Joseph, stands next to a miraculous oak. Today, the miracle may seem to be that the tree is still living despite its hollow trunk! However, it has more specific powers too. According to legend, this ancient tree was venerated as a fertility symbol by the druids, and young women who rub their bottoms against the trunk on St Joseph’s day will be either married or pregnant within a year (accounts vary, although it might be worth clarifying before you visit...). The ritual was still being followed in the 1920s, and this kind of legend is not uncommon in Brittany although such fertility rites more usually involve rubbing against a menhir.

Another chapel, St Gilles des Prés, has its own legend. It was built in memory of Gilles de Bretagne, a Breton prince who caused trouble for his brother, ruler of Brittany. After offering his help to the English, thus stirring up trouble between England, Brittany and France, he was imprisoned in his own castle and finally killed in 1450. The chapel’s isolated spot is explained by the story that when Gilles’ body was being taken past on its way to his funeral, the convoy had to make an unscheduled stop because the oxen pulling the coffin refused to move. The chapel and a healing well mark the place.

Langourla even has a menhir (‘long stone’, or standing stone). However, the Menhir de la Coudre is a little less upright than most! In the nineteenth century, a rumour circulated that there was treasure buried underneath. As a result of the digging, the stone was left with a permanent lean.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Lunch at Carnaval del Pueblo

The annual Carnaval del Pueblo in Burgess Park was held on Sunday. It's a celebration of all things Latin American in south-east London. Although I couldn't stay for the parade, I did drop in for lunch!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Signposts (4): 9 miles west

This milestone, rather reminiscent of the one in South Kensington, is on the road between Hounslow and Isleworth. However, despite having fewer olde worlde flourishes, it's also somewhat senior to its eastern counterpart: at the bottom it's dated 1834.

This milestone is one of a number on the London-Staines road. It was cast by R U & J Barrett, who would no doubt have been proud to know that their work would survive so long.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Positive letters

Ben Eine has spray-painted the whole alphabet onto shop shutters in Middlesex Street. My favourite section is this one at the Aldgate end where he abandons alphabetical order, to cheerful effect.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Ghost signs (40): Brighton

Away from the tourist centre of the town, up in the London Road shopping area, are two ghost signs. The first has lost its left-hand strip, but is still fairly easy to decipher as 'W J Andrew, Family Grocer, Provision Merchant'. The location is a slightly awkward one, but the signwriter has carefully made sure that the message is fully visible from the Preston Circus junction.

The second sign is in a shop entrance, a palimpsest of two similar messages in rather different styles. The black lettering advertises 'E J Johnson, Afternoon Teas, Chops, Steaks, Mineral Waters'. Underneath, a fancier sign with a partially-legible name (my best guess is E J Keep) emblazoned across the middle, also boasts of 'Afternoon teas, light refreshments, minerals'. It was a tempting offer on a warm afternoon, but unfortunately the shop now sells printer supplies.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Swan Hotel symbols

Reading through eighteenth and nineteenth-century sources, a great deal of Deptford life seemed to take place in pubs. I don't mean in the Eastenders sense, although no doubt plenty of personal dramas were played out in the local bars. However, any number of organisations and societies also used hostelries for committee and subscriber meetings, political and residents' meetings, and even job interviews.

The Swan Hotel in the High Street was the venue for some of these meetings. A walk round the side of the building suggests that another group met there too, for alongside the name of the building are four Masonic symbols. (From left to right: the square and compasses; the plumb and level; the Temple of Solomon? and the hexagram.)