Sunday, 8 March 2020

Purfleet Magazine

On the margins of London, on the edge of Rainham Marshes, and on the banks of the Thames, is the Essex town of Purfleet. Its residents are probably right to feel somewhat overlooked (they hope a name change to Purfleet-on-Thames will help): chances are that you haven't visited, unless you are a birdwatcher or have business at the Freight Terminal. I was certainly unaware of the surprisingly significant Purfleet Magazine until I happened across it while on a visit to somewhere else. 

Until alternatives developed in the late nineteenth century, the British military was dependent upon gunpowder. However, storing the substance was fraught with danger: contact with a spark could lead to explosions. It was therefore stored in wooden barrels, themselves kept in solid buildings, hedged with precautions. Some of the sites were surprisingly central - such as the Tower of London and Hyde Park - since they needed to be available for use. However, larger supplies were kept in more remote locations. Thus in 1760, an Act of Parliament established the Royal Gunpowder Magazine at Purfleet to replace one on Greenwich Peninsula. It was the main storage centre for gunpowder.

By 1773, five magazines had been built, each able to hold over 10,000 barrels of gunpowder. Their roof voids were filled with sand, the walls were brick with few window openings. Copper panels helped to reflect some light into the interiors. Powder was delivered from mills, notably Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills, and tested in the proof house on arrival. It was then stored until needed by the army or navy. A garrison of soldiers kept the magazines, enclosed within high security walls, secure; the civilian workers inside wore safety clothes and were bound by strict rules including a prohibition on smoking. 

In 1962, the site was closed and some of the buildings demolished. Magazine No. 5 and the proof house do survive, tangible evidence of Purfleet's past importance. Indeed, the magazine is now a heritage centre - closed during my brief visit, but somewhere I plan to return.

Saturday, 29 February 2020


Just because you can never have too many pictures of beautiful Dinan. 

This town in Brittany, built on a hillside above the Rance river, has buildings from every period back to the middle ages. They offer an endlessly enchanting combination of stone, ironwork, and half-timbering.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

London scales, York merchants

In York's Merchant Adventurers' Hall is a fine pair of scales, dated 1790. As well as the year, they also have the maker's details: De Grave London fecit [De Grave London made]. 

The scales were essential to the Merchant Adventurers, traders who [ad]ventured their money investing in overseas trade; many were mercers (cloth traders). As a guild company, they used their hall to transcact business from their founding in the fourteenth century. They also performed a regulatory function, regularly checking the city's scales and goods against standard weights and measures to ensure fairness. 

Charles De Grave had gone into business making scales in about 1767 and was still running the company when these scales went to York. 1790 was also the year he married his second wife Mary; she must have been younger than him, because she took over the business after his death in 1799 and remained in charge until her death in about 1840. The couple's son had joined as an apprentice in 1806, and in 1817 the business became known as Mary De Grave and Son; it was based at 59 St Martin's le Grand. That location was fortuitous: the General Post Office headquarters were established on the same street in 1829, and their proximity perhaps helped De Grave become the suppliers of post office scales. Other notable customers included the Exchequer, the Assay Office, and the Royal Mint; De Grave also manufactured scales to weigh everything from diamonds to jockeys. The company remained in the family - although the year after Mary's death, the firm became De Grave, Short and Co, and later De Grave, Short and Fanner - until it was taken over by Avery in 1922.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Ghost signs (140): Portsea ghost

Above Demon Dave's barber in Bishop Street, Portsmouth are the faded remnants of a ghost sign. Having been painted over, it's difficult to decipher. However, there are some important clues: 
It's tempting to take that first word and assume that this sign advertised a general stores. However, a search for the most likely proper name revealed a rather different business - and one with a long history. 

W Treadgold and Co Ltd of Bishop Street were iron merchants, in business from the nineteenth century until 1988. In 1816, William Treadgold had been left the property by his uncle, blacksmith John Jones. Three years later he died and his brother John had taken over the ironmongery business. John's son William was responsible for much of the business's development from the 1860s. It expanded from a general inronmongers' store to include forges and a warehouse along with the shop, stables, and house. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Treadgolds described themselves as 'iron and steel merchants' as well as ironmongers.

Although they were not a naval business, the Treadgolds were affected by the Navy's presence in the city. The population grew significantly during the nineteenth century - there were five times as many residents in 1901 as in 1801 - increasing demand for their products. Located in Portsea, near the naval dockyard, the Treadgolds were at the heart of the city's economy. Many of their customers were businesses including the main local builders. They also supplied government contractors and sold agricultural equipment. By the 1870s, they were supplying pipework and steam fittings to major buildings including the Royal Naval Club and the Royal Portsmouth, Portsea and Gosport Hospital.

From the 1920s, declines in naval dockyard employment saw corresponding decline in the local eonomy, which also affected the Treadgolds. There was also increasing competition from other areas of the city, such as Southsea and Landport. After the Second World War, new housing was also located further out from Portsea. The Treadgold family ceased to own the business after the death of Miss Beatrice Treadgold in 1947, and it declined as it became increasingly old-fashioned. Nonetheless, it contined for another forty years until it was sold to Portsmouth County Council in 1988. The sign - battered, faded, and obscured - has endured longer still.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Lincoln's Inn: no broken windows

Lincoln's Inn is one of the four Inns of Court. These Inns are both professional bodies to which all barristers in England in Wales belong, and physical places which host dining, training, governance, and also many barristers' chambers. While those chambers are now offices, historically many lawyers also lived here. The combination of functions meant that space was required, and in the 1680s Lincoln's Inn was extended by the building of New Square at its border. 

The process of expansion and development brought its own disputes and agreements between Henry Serle, who claimed and built upon the area of empty ground which is now New Square, and his neighbour the Inn. A rather charming plaque is evidence of one of them. 'T - IG' stands for 'Treasurer - John Greene', and 1693 is the date it was placed here. Most interesting is the text: 'This wall is built upon the ground of Lincolnes Inne no windokes [windows] are To be brocken out without Leave'. It refers not to smashing windows, but to adding them to the wall. 

Other plaques can be seen around the Inn which follow this format of a letter 'T', the Treasurer's initials, and the date of building work. A particularly good selection appears on the facade of Wildy's legal bookshop.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Ghost signs (139): Chester, platform 3

This ghost sign is an intriguing fragment, visible between the posters on platform 3 of Chester railway station. It seems to have directed passengers to ... somethingS AND TRAINS. The temptation to remove that poster is strong! 

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Cap Frehel in winter

One of the finest places in Brittany is Cap Frehel, a peninsula on the Emerald Coast. The rugged coastline is watched over by two lighthouses and protected by Fort la Latte. Today, the only invaders are tourists but in the Second World War it was an important radar station; few traces now remain except a few blockhouses which are now home to bats.

More enduring is the Chapelle du Vieux Bourg, formerly the parish church of Pléhérel, which stands on top of cliffs 40 metres above a sandy bay. Parts of it date back 800 years, although major work was done in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Its location is a bit of a mystery, as it was never in the heart of the parish. Theories include that Saint Herel had a hermitage in a nearby (and now-disappeared) cave, or that it was an important place of worship under the Romans. In 1870, a new parish church was dedicated at its centre and this building demoted to chapel. Its dilapidated nave was demolished, but worship continued here and today it's in good condition.

The moorland's vegetation is shaped by the poor soil and powerful winds. Its charms are obvious in summer, when the heather and gorse bloom with flowers, but even in winter it is beautiful. 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...