Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Ghost signs (143): York found and - nearly - lost again

Piccadilly in York is less fancy than its London counterpart, but full of interest. If you look carefully, you can even spot the large and bright ghost sign for Foxton's Garage. The reason that care is needed is that the sign is now facing a hotel wall!

Photograph showing a recently built brick building on the left and a much older brick building on the right. There is a small gap between them, with a painted ghost sign visible on the older building's side wall.

Foxton's Garage was here from the 1930s until 1975. Old photographs show a different version of the sign, so it post-dates the 1930s: back then, 'Saloon Buses for Pleasure Parties' were being advertised. 

The current sign says 'Foxton's Garage Ltd. Morris cars sales and service'. Its light blue lettering and cream background have survived, looking relatively fresh, thanks to being covered by other buildings until 2019. It was exposed again when the nearest buildings were demolished, and immediately attracted attention and calls for it to be saved. Sure enough, it has survived - even if it does seem to be hiding shyly behind the hotel next door!

Saturday, 21 May 2022

Bath Humane Society: a history and an ode

Alongside the Kennett and Avon Canal in Bath is Top Lock Cottage, a former canal lock-keeper's cottage. It also used to hold rescue equipment on behalf of the Bath Humane Society, as a sign on its wall still attests. 

Photograph showing a small stone building with a pitched roof and gothic-arched windows. On the side wall is a blue enamel notice with the words 'Bath Humane Society's Station for Lifebuoys and Drag-Poles' visible. In the foreground is a hedge.

This society made life-saving equipment available to the public to rescue people from water. A booklet from 1806 now in the Wellcome Library gives more information about how the Society operated. 

It aimed to provide assistance with all stages of the rescue process. Grappling poles allowed people to be rescued from the water and brought to dry land; rewards encouraged the public to make the effort to use them; and printed 'Directions'for performing rescues were distributed among the 'lower classes'. Receiving houses provided spaces to attempt resuscitation. A number of local doctors were willing to provide medical treatment. 

Photograph showing a closer view of the blue enamel sign in the previous image.


The pamphlet is not so much celebratory as reproachful in tone. It reproaches the city for not having established this system sooner; the canal builders for not making their sluices and locks safer; parents for letting their children play by the water; the working classes, who had formerly assumed assistance was futile; and reckless young ice-skaters. Those last are advised to 'make it a practice ... of holding a staff or a strong walking-stick, of a convenient length, in both hands in a horizontal direction' so that in case of accident, they would stay 'suspended' until help arrived. I suspect that this recommendation was rarely followed. 

The rescues of 1805 and 1806 - successful or not - are detailed. In its first year, the Bath Humane Society paid out rewards for those involved in recovering 'a young lad' who seems not to have survived; a six-year-old boy; a pregnant woman; two children (one of whom did not survive); and a woman who threw herself in the river. All these incidents occurred in August and September. The following June, premiums were paid for recovery of the body of a young woman; a chimney-sweep in 'a fit of desperation'; a boy working for masons who fell and could not be saved; a 6-year-old who recovered fully; and two young brothers, the younger of whom could not be revived. In July, a 7-year-old boy survived; an 8-year-old did not; a 5-year-old was retrieved with some difficulty; two unnamed boys were recovered lifeless by the same man, three days apart; another boy was successfully rescued the next day, as was a young man with his horse a day after that. 

After much discussion of drag and grappling-hook design, and a list of subscribers, the booklet ends with an ode:

RESUSCITATION HAIL! whose potent breath
Can wrest the Victim from impending Death; 
Type of the World's great Saviour! him whose hand
Could make the still, cold breast again expand; 
And, list'ning to the Widow's piercing cries, 
Command to life her bier-stretch'd Son to rise;
Oh! glorious attribute of pow'r divine!
To shield, to succour, and to save be thine!
The treach'rous stream, that stilly winds
Around old Badon's walls,
Lures to its bosom youthful minds, 
And by its smile enthrals.
One, fearless of its surface green, 
Adventures from the shore:-
Through eddies strong, or depths unseen, 
He sinks - to rise no more!
And scorning Heav'n's first law, ah! wretch accurs'd!
"His Maker braves, and dares him to the worst!"
Meet consolation, with reprovals kind, 
Cheer'd, sooth'd, and reconciled the chasten'd mind.
Whilst mild RELIGION ev'ry effort tries,
To crush DESPAIR, and point to happier skies.
Oh! then, ye Promoters of this hallow'd plan, 
Who the embers of life thus successfully fan; 
Proceed in your labours, so nobly begun,
And be to mischance, like the beams of the sun, 
Whose heat can invig'rate the senseless cold clod!
And bid the sunk spirit rejoice in its God!
Keep from obloquy's stain, what too long has been said
- In Avon once sunk - irretrievably dead; 
Be the slaying of thousands the boast of the Brave -
Your triumphs are greater - your boast is - TO SAVE!

 The author was William Meyler, a local bookseller and newspaper editor. Born in Anglesey, he had been apprenticed to a bookshop owner in Bath before opening his own shop and later becoming a publisher. He was also known as a poet, performing addresses and works at the theatre, and in 1792 launched the Bath Herald and General Advertiser. He was by 1806 a prominent citizen, member of many charitable and other societies, City Councillor, and Deputy Provincial Grand Master of Somerset in the Freemasons. A decade later, Mary Godwin and her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley lodged at Meyler's shop while she completed Frankenstein.

Bath's smaller organisation had been inspired by the Royal Humane Society, whose original full title  was the 'Humane Society for the recovery of persons apparently dead by drowning'. It had been founded in London in 1774 and promoted resuscitation of the drowned. While it apparently impressed the Bath author with its success in restoring people in whom 'every spark of vitality appeared to have been extinguished', they had to concede that the local organisation's successes lay in rescuing people who still showed signs of life. A better result, but a less dramatic one!

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Elizabeth Line: behind the barriers at Tottenham Court Road

With the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail project due to open to passengers next week, here is a sneak preview of what's behind the barriers at the Tottenham Court Road Station! 


Photograph showing a yellow concertina barrier across the entrance to the Crossrail platforms inside the station

The new station is full of carefully-designed details, designed to reflect the area above ground. Look closely at the rather abstract pattern of dots on the wall panels and you can see it is in fact a stylised map: spot Soho Square and the roundels marking the station entrances.  

Photograph of a shiny red panel with white dots in a grid pattern. There is a square gap in the dots, with an outline of a house shape in the centre, representing Soho Square. Some of the dots are in fact Underground roundels.

The new tunnels and platforms are full of curves, light, and the distinctive 'totems' which will be a feature of all Elizabeth Line stations. They serve multiple functions including signage and lighting. 

The opening of the central section on 24 May 2022 will be a giant step towards completion of a project which began in 2009. When I visited the construction site at Woolwich Arsenal in 2014, it was apparently at its halfway point - but there have been a few delays since then, unsurprising in work of this magnitude. When the line is fully open, it will run from Reading to Shenfield and be over 100km long.

All that work has not only brought much-needed new transport infrastructure. It was accompanied by a huge archaeology programme which brought exciting discoveries. It also reminded us that Crosse and Blackwell originally had a factory a few steps away in Soho Square!

Inside the new Tottenham Court Road station, finding your way through its generous spaces is made easier through some clever colour-coding. The eastern side, with the St Giles Circus entrance, features red glass walls; at the western, Dean Street end they are black.Above our heads, the lights are modelled on stage lights - a reference to the many theatres above.

In fact, all that was missing on this visit were the passengers and trains ... but they will soon be here too!

Tuesday, 28 December 2021

Molly and Morris

Photograph of dancers and two musicians stood in the street

If you walked down Deptford High Street, through the market and towards the station, on 11 December then you would have seen Fowler's Molly Dancers performing in the street. As is usual for morris dancing, the day's stops were all outside pubs! However, this was not just an excuse for a few pints, but the continuation of an older tradition. 

Photograph of three dancers standing in the street in molly dancing dress.

Molly dances, a form of morris dance, were performed in winter in East Anglia by agricultural workers. They disguised themselves in various ways including by painting their faces and wearing women's clothes. They performed parodies of familiar dances in return for tips and refreshments, traditionally dancing on Boxing Day and Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night). Originally, the Plough Monday collections went to the church who had blessed the ploughs that day; but the blessings largely ended with the Reformation and by the nineteenth century, the dancers kept their takings. Their disguises were those traditionally favoured by rioters as well, and they were often associated with 'plough gangs' who threatened to plough up the properties of those who did not contribute money. Their behaviour had been tolerated as part of the 'misrule' permitted over the Christmas season but attitudes and agricultural life changed and the molly dances began to disappear. Unsurprisingly, these dancers were viewed as rowdier, their antics more anti-social, than the summertime morris dancers and little effort was made to preserve the tradition. It effectively died out by the start of the Second World War. 

However, molly dances have undergone a revival from the late 1970s onwards. The dances collected a ccentury ago (fewer than for the morris, given their poorer reputation) are danced again, and others have been added to the repertoire. Today, Fowler's Molly - founded in 2000 - are one of many troops performing them over the winter months.

Photograph of two men, one holding a fiddle and the other playing an accordion

Sunday, 31 October 2021

Cutty Sark updated!

 If you look at the figurehead of the Cutty Sark at Greenwich, you may notice that she looks shiny and new. Indeed, Nannie - the cutty sark-wearing main character in Robert Burns' poem Tam O'Shanter, - has been reborn recently. 

Photograph of a carved white figurehead of a woman in a shift dress holding a horse's tail in her outstretched hand.
The new figurehead

In the poem, farmer Tam O’Shanter was riding home from market (and the pub) when he saw witches and warlocks dancing around a bonfire in the churchyard. One, Nannie, was wearing a cutty sark: a short petticoat or shift. When Tam O’Shanter couldn’t resist calling out, the witches and warlocks ran after him. Luckily, his mare carried him to the River Doon: as we all know, witches can’t cross water. However, Nannie ran at great speed and caught hold of the horse’s tail just as they reached the bridge. Luckily for Tam O'Shanter, the tail came away in Nannie’s hand and he made good his escape. 

Earlier photograph of a similar figurehead, but her looser shift shows signs of wear and damage.
The old figurehead

Nannie had her own escape in 2007: when a fire badly damaged the ship, she was safely in storage elsewhere. However, by 2019 it was obvious that this wooden figurehead - itself a 1957 replacement - was suffering from rot and a new version was needed. The old Nannie has retired to the National Maritime Museum, and a new incarnation was carved from Swedish redwood by woodcarver Andy Peters. She was installed on the ship in June 2021: a crane lifted her into place, she was carefully attached, and as a finishing touch the 'tail' was placed in her hand. 

If you'd like to see more about the process, there are plenty of videos on the Greenwich museum's website

Friday, 24 September 2021

A saint and a scandal


Photograph showing part of a doorway arch carved in pale golden stone, and a metal sign with the words 'Saint Bartholomew House' which extends at right angles from the facade

Between two shopfronts on Fleet Street is the entrance to Saint Bartholomew House, an office building. It has some rather fine details: not only a metal sign extending over the pavement, but a carved entrance including the building name and cipher, two putti, and a frieze of foliage. It is no wonder that the architect and sculptor were proud enough to include their own names.

Photograph showing the carved doorway arch from a different angle. To either side, carved putti are visible.

The sculptor was Gilbert Seale - full name John Hugh Gilbert Seale. Born in South London, he was the son of an architectural sculptor and followed in his father John Wesley Seale's footsteps - and his own son would continue the business in turn. He  worked on the nearby Old Bailey as well as buildings ranging from churches to department stores.

Photograph showing a carved detail: the name 'Gilbert Seale, Sculptor'

On the other side of the arch, the year it was built - 1900 - is given below the name of its architect H Huntly Gordon. Herbert Huntly Gordon was a speculative builder as well as an architect - but eight years after completing this building, also became a subject of scandal. He and his wife each sought to divorce the other - he accused her of adultery with a naval officer, while she accused him of the same with a governess - but the court found the allegations to be unfounded and the couple had to stay unhappily married. They (unsurprisingly) lived apart, and their elder daughter stayed with Huntly Gordon while the younger lived with his estranged wife.

Photograph showing a carved detail: the name 'H Huntley Gordon, Architect'

Three years later, the couple returned to court as Mrs Huntly Gordon petitioned for restitution of conjugal rights (ie to return to the marital home). The prospect apparently appealed neither to her husband nor to her elder daughter, now eighteen, who wrote to her mother than before the separation, her parents had 'quarrelled and disagreed over every small thing': they were 'better apart'. The judge sent the couple and their lawyers to discuss the matter in private, and a deed of separation was drawn up instead.

Photograph of one of the carved putti, with butterfly-like wings and flowers in its hair

However, that was all in the future when the architect designed the stylish and playful Saint Bartholomew House. Let's finish by noting the unusual putto on the right of the doorway: as Chris Partridge of Ornamental Passions points out, this charcater appears to have butteryfly-style wings and flowers in their hair.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Durham Cathedral: seeking sanctuary


Photograph of the Durham Cathedral sanctuary knocker: a metal face, demonic in appearance, with a ring in its mouth, on a heavy wooden door.

The rather demonic-looking monster might seem an unlikely face to find on the door of Durham Cathedral. The metal knocker was designed to deter evil from the Cathedral, maintaining it as a place of sanctuary. 

In fact, the name of this sanctuary knocker refers to the very specific concept of sanctuary in the middle ages. A person who had committed an offence could seek sanctuary in the church for a relatively short period - weeks rather than months - during which they could choose either trial or exile. In other words, it was a time to get their affairs in order and decide on their future rather than an indefinite escape from the consequences of their actions. Only in the fifteenth century would Durham Cathedral be able to offer permanent sanctuary to debtors and wrongdoers - a privilege limited to certain important churches who held a royal charter. However, it was a sort of imprisonment: the sanctuary-seeker was only immune from arrest while within the cathedral precincts, and had to have the means to support themselves there since they were unlikely to find work.

The knocker now on the door is a replica of the twelfth-century original - still in the cathedral, but now kept in its museum rather than exposed to the elements.