Friday, 19 April 2019

Walking Mail Rail


One of the most exciting new museums is the Postal Museum, which opened its doors - and its legendary railway - in 2017. The Mail Rail had transported letters and parcels below the city for three-quarters of a century before it finally closed in 2003, but was not for passengers or the public. A stretch of this celebrated, if hidden, network now forms the centrepiece of the museum: a fifteen-minute ride in a specially-created passenger train allows visitors both to experience this very special underground rail system and to learn its history.

Museum supporters have been given a very special opportunity to walk the railway lines. As a member of SubBrit, I was able to join one of those tours and get a closer look at some of the features of the Post Office Railway. 

A pneumatic railway ran for a while in the nineteenth century, but had long closed when underground mail transport was reconsidered at the start of the twentieth. The Post Office (London) Railway Act 1913 allowed construction to begin the following year and over six miles of tunneling was completed by 1917. However, World War One delayed the installation of operating equipment, and post-war reconstruction kept the cost of materials high for some years; the railway finally opened in 1927. 

Stations, corresponding to parcel offices and district offices above-ground, had wide platforms for loading and unloading the carriages quickly. Some of the equipment is still visible today.

The 'graveyard'

The 'graveyard'

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Painted Hall: revealing the ceiling

In the heart of historic Greenwich, the Old Royal Naval College's Painted Hall has been filled with scaffolding for some time - but next weekend, it triumphantly reopens, fully restored. And it looks just amazing!

The Hall was originally intended as the dining room for inhabitants of Greenwich Hospital - elderly or injured Navy sailors. However, once Sir James Thornhill had finished painting his Baroque masterpiece on its walls and ceilings, it was deemed too grand for the residents and kept for formal occasions. The most famous of these was the lying-in-state of Nelson's body once it returned to London from the Battle of Trafalgar.

Time, sunlight, and problems caused by earlier restorations meant that conservation was needed. This exacting process was accompanied by consideration of how best to protect the paintings for the future. Blinds moderating the amount of sunlight through the Hall's large windows are one important answer visitors might spot.

A sneak preview revealed far more than Thornhill's masterpiece. A new entrance has been created in the undercroft. Not only does this better protect the paintings, since temperature and humidity can be better controlled; it has also opened up space for a cafe and shop. There are also ticket desks since, inevitably and not unreasonably, admission is now for a set price rather than a suggested donation. 

The restoration work had offered its own opportunities to get really close to the art, both on the west wall and the main ceiling. However, it's now time to appreciate the full scope of this incredible dining room once more.

You can get two-for-one tickets for the opening weekend (23-24 March 2019) using the code PAINTEDHALL241 


Friday, 18 January 2019

Sylvia Pankhurst in Ethiopia

Sylvia Pankhurst is strongly associated with the East End of London: she co-founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914. However, London was only one part of her life: she had grown up in Manchester with her sisters and mother Emmeline, founder of the suffragette Women's Social and Political Union. Sylvia moved to London to attend the Royal College of Arts, after which she worked for the WSPU which had also moved to the capital. Political differences led her to leave and form a new group in the East End. She was a committed socialist and, during the First World War, a pacifist (her mother and sister Christabel, by contrast, gave their full support to the war). 

Yet Sylvia is not buried in East London but in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. How did an English suffragette and socialist come to be here? 

After the First World War, Sylvia continued to be active in left-wing politics and in the 1930s, focused on anti-fascism. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Sylvia advocated for the country. She supported its emperor Haile Selassie and published the New Times and Ethiopia News. Her interest in Ethiopia continued after it was liberated during the Second World War, and she became a friend of Haile Selassie. She continued to publish and also worked tirelessly on the founding of a teaching hospital in Addis Ababa, the dream of Haile Selassie's daughter Princess Tsehai who had qualified as a nurse in London but died from childbirth complications in 1942. Sylvia's 1944 trip to select the site was her first visit to the country. 

In 1956, following the death of her partner of forty years, the 74-year-old Sylvia moved to Addis Ababa with her son Richard. She founded a monthly journal, the Ethiopia Observer, for which she travelled all over the country; she also worked actively for the hospital and other causes. When she died there in 1960, she received a state funeral. She was buried in front of Holy Trinity Cathedral in the section for patriots who resisted the Italian invasion, the only foreigner to receive this honour. 

Sylvia's son Richard is now buried alongside her. He shared her deep interest in Ethiopia, and wrote extensively on the country and its history. He also campaigned for the return of the Obelisk of Axum, taken from Ethiopia to Rome by the Fascist occupiers. About 1700 years old and over 24 metres tall, this extraordinary stele is one of a number standing in the former capital of the Axumite Empire which extended over almost a quarter of a million square miles. (Although one is very definitely not standing: given too small a base, it probably collapsed almost immediately after erection.)mAlthough the Italians had agreed to its return in 1947, it was only restored to its original site in 2008.

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