Sunday, 4 November 2018

Greenwich Town Hall

Greenwich no longer has a town hall: when the borough was merged with neighbouring Woolwich, the new authority took the latter's town hall as its base. However, Greenwich used to have one - and it's still standing, but now known as Meridian House. The building was admired by Pevsner and is deservedly  Grade II listed

The tall, geometric design with its distinctive clock was built in 1939: a late example of Art Deco before World War II intervened. The architects, Culpin and Son, were heavily influenced by Hilversum Town Hall, built in 1930 by Dutch modernist architect Willem Marinus Dudok. 

Hilversum Town Hall 

The partnership of Culpin and Bowers had been known for its public housing projects. When it was dissolved in 1935,  E G Culpin formed the new firm with his son Clifford. Culpin senior was an advocate of the garden city movement and a Labour councillor (later Chairman of London County Council). He and Clifford had just completed Poplar Town Hall the year before. Clifford took the leading role on the Greenwich project. 

The brick is only cladding: the building is reinforced concrete. The glass near the top of the tower reminds us that it was intended as an observation deck with river views. Sadly, the public have not been allowed up there for some years. 

Happily, another feature remains accessible. The mosaic in the side entrance was created by Carter and Co, tilemakers in Poole, Dorset whose subsidiary Carter Stabler and Adams became Poole Pottery. Meanwhile, Carter and Co made both ornamental and functional tiles - including many of those lining London Underground, as well as the LCC and GLC's blue plaques. 

Carter and Co tiling, Poole Arms, Poole

The identity of the mosaic artist is not certain, but was probably David Evans who had worked with the Culpins on other projects including Poplar Town Hall. The work is a jaunty combination of the maritime - a ship and telescope - and celestial zodiac symbols.

While no longer used by the council, much of the building is occupied by Greenwich School of Management and it remains a striking landmark. (The situation of its large public hall, Borough Hall, appears more uncertain as recent occupiers Greenwich Dance left earlier this year.) 

Image of Hilversum Town Hall: Roundtheworld, shared under a Creative Commons licence

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Hawksmoor, Wolfe, and Fuller's Earth: St Alfege Church crypt

St Alfege Church is a Greenwich landmark, standing in its centre since the eighteenth century when it replaced its collapsed predecessor. It was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and funded as one of the Fifty New Churches - of which only a dozen were built.

However, one of the most interesting parts of the church goes almost unseen - the crypt below. (Although not entirely below ground - a trick to raise the main body of the church and make it seem more imposing.) It is currently only open for tours on special occasions, although there are plans to make it accessible in future. 

A narrow staircase leads from an external door into the crypt, where bodies were interred in family vaults until 1859. They included John Julius Angerstein, a prominent businessman and underwriter, chairman of Lloyd's in the 1790s, and art collector whose paintings became the core of the National Gallery's collection. He is controversial today since the extent of his involvement in the slave trade is contested. 

Another vault is slightly cryptically occupied by 'Martyr's'. This is the name of a local family rather than a description of the occupants.

The most famous occupant was General James Wolfe, celebrated for victory over the French at Quebec in 1759. He was fatally wounded in the battle, and this 'martyrdom' made him the most celebrated military hero of his period. However, he had already made a name for himself through improving weapons skills and tactics and achieved his position as major-general aged just 32. He had fought at Culloden in 1746, where he allegedly refused to shoot a wounded Jacobite despite orders to do so. 

When interments ceased, the vaults were filled with Fuller's earth, an absorbent clay - just visible through a grille at the front of each vault.

Not all the vaults held wealthy families: there is also a church vault. In total, the crypt held over a thousand bodies. Below its floor are even more, burials from the earlier church building including the composer Thomas Tallis. 

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Cabot Cafe, College Green

In the heart of Bristol is a fish and chip shop - not that exciting, until you look up above the modern shopfront. On the upper floors of the facade, beautiful details of the original Cabot Cafe remain.
It was built in 1904 by James LaTrobe and Thomas Weston, architects whose other Art Nouveau buildings in Bristol included a primary school. By 1921, their Whiteladies Picture House cinema showed clear Art Deco influence. The Cabot Cafe was commissioned by Walter Hughes, a local estate agent who had experience of property development on the Green: he had been responsible for building the Royal Hotel forty years earlier.

The colourful tiled mosaic catches the eye first. It was the work of Catherine Hughes, the client's daughter. She took the design from the 1891 binding of A House of Pomegranates - surely a daring choice less than a decade after the prosecution and disgrace of its author Oscar Wilde.

Less bright, but equally beautiful, are the copper panels to either side. These continue the pomegranate theme and are pure Art Nouveau. Other details, by contrast, are more baroque (a mixture of styles characteristic of LaTrobe and Weston's work).

Cabot Cafe suffered damage in the Second World War. We are fortunate, then, that this intriguing facade nevertheless survived to delight us today.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Dinosaurs up close!

Crystal Palace is home to the fantastic, much-loved dinosaur park - or more accurately, prehistoric animal park, since it has more than dinosaurs. Its most famous residents are on an island, usually firmly off-limits to the public.

However, the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs offered a very special opportunity to cross a temporary bridge onto the island during its Dinosaur Days. Our guide was Anthony Lewis, creator of a fantastic 'Lost Valley of London' video about the dinosaurs. Close up, they are full of usually-unseen details. 

There was even an opportunity to look inside one of the dinosaurs. These models are hollow, with a brick framework. Their creator Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins carefully developed scale models based upon the latest research, then made a full-size version of clay with wooden supports. This was used to create a mould, from which cement sections were cast. For the larger dinosaurs such as the iguanadons, a brickwork structure was built around a metal frame, then given shape with iron hoops and tiles. Finally, mortar was used to attach the cement cast sections and to add details. Lead teeth were fastened into the dinosaurs' gums with pins, and the whole model was painted.

Not all of those details are happy ones. The Grade-I listed dinosaurs require ongoing conservation, suffering as they do from exposure to the elements (and, sadly, sometimes deliberate vandalism). 

Fancy making the trip? Opportunities are rare at the moment, because a bridge has to be temporarily (and expensively) constructed each time. However, the Friends are crowdfunding for a permanent bridge: if the money can be raised, then we will all have more chances to walk among dinosaurs!

Monday, 3 September 2018

Boxing Academy

Dingle's Fairground Heritage Centre is full of eye-catching fairground art, as well as actual working rides. Among its many striking pieces is one which tells all sorts of stories: a set of panels from the elaborately-painted Billy Wood's Boxing Show. 

The boxing show was a familiar attraction in British funfairs until the 1970s. Members of the public would be promised a pound if they could win three rounds with one of the professional boxers who took on all-comers. Few of them succeeded! Of course, some fights were easier for the professionals than others: Danny Corns recollects how, when Billy Wood's would visit Ilston Fair, 'Half a dozen booth fighters who toured with the show would stand in a line on the booth platform where the showman would introduce them one by one... [After pub closing-time] the inebriated challenger, arms flailing like a windmill, only managed to hit fresh air. The fair boxer usually took it easy on him. The challenger soon became exhausted and struggled to get off his stool for the next round.'  A number of pre-war boxers began their careers in these shows, and the incredible demands of the fairground must have provided a good grounding for the gruelling schedules endured by many of those professional boxers. 

Billy Wood was the son of a boxing show operator and grandson of a bare-knuckle fighter. Born in Scotland in 1903, he first appeared in his father's fairground show aged nine, but his career really begin in 1919. He later described a day at the 1919 Durham Miners' Gala which began at 7am, ended at 1am, and involved fighting 18 miners (15 were knocked out). 

Wood's boxing show began in 1922, when he was just 19. Since the panel shows a 1931 fight, it may have been repainted soon after his move from Scotland to England in 1929. Wood fought in the fairgrounds during the summer and in boxing venues during winter. The fight between him and 'Kid Shepherd' depicted on his booth was one of the latter. It is an intriguing choice: it is not obvious that this match was particularly significant. It may, though, have been a career highlight for Wood, not least because it was his second win in two days. Following a drawn match just a fortnight earlier, he won this rematch with a knock-out. Incredibly, the day before the rematch with Sheppard in Leith, he had fought in Hackney - and also won. Yet those efforts were perhaps overshadowed by his win against Johnny McMillan three months later, since it made him featherweight champion of Scotland. When his boxing career ended, he dedicated himself full-time to the show which last appeared at the Nottingham Goose Fair in 1971. (By then, changes in culture, safety regulations, and British Boxing Board of Control rules which prevented professionals fighting in the fairgrounds, had all contributed to the booths' decline.) His sons then gave it to the National Fairground Trust, and it is a highlight of their collection on display at the Heritage Centre. 

However, the story of his opponent Arnold 'Kid' Sheppard is a rather tragic one. Born in Cardiff Docks in 1908 to a Barbadian father and British mother, he had worked as a miner in the Rhondda Valley before he fought Billy Wood twice in 1929, in Leith. He was knocked out in the first match but a fortnight later, they fought again and drew on points. These were just two of around 300 bouts in a career stretching from 1926 to 1939: an average of over 20 fights a year, meaning that he often went into the ring still injured from a previous match. He was a 'journeyman', who prided himself on lasting the distance in most fights even though he 'often fought hurt and on very short notice.' Nonetheless, he won 95 of the fights and drew 38. There is some information online about Sheppard's bleak retirement (thankfully, it seems that his life and career are now being researched). He joined the merchant navy in World War II; but in later life he suffered blindness and dementia as a result of his boxing injuries, and he died in Claybury Asylum, Essex in 1979. 

One reason for Sheppard's punishing fight schedule may have been that the opportunity to fight for a Lonsdale title belt, and thus enjoy a more lucrative career, was closed to him. Black boxers had been an integral part of the fairground and professional fighting scenes since the nineteenth century, but from 1911 to 1948, 'non-white' boxers were formally barred from Lonsdale championship titles. 

The other match was a more obviously notable one: Canadian fighter Larry Gains, the 'Toronto Terror', had beaten Phil Scott to win the British Empire Heavyweight Title in 1931 - but the British Boxing Board of Control refused to recognise him as champion because of the colour bar. (PJ Moss, writing in the Daily Mirror, suggested that fans viewed Gains as champion: 'When a champion is beaten under championship conditions the public generally regard the winner as taking over the mantle of the defeated one.') Scott had won his previous three fights for the title; Gains would hold it (or not) in another three fights before losing to Len Harvey in 1934. The bar on black boxers also prevented him from becoming World Champion (giving him the title for his autobiography, The Impossible Dream), though he did twice win the title of Coloured Heavyweight Champion of the World. He went on to be a physical training instructor in the British Army during World War II. After the war, he lived in and around London and did a series of low-paid jobs, having lost much of his money through gambling. Meanwhile, Scott didn't fight again but became a boxing instructor for the Egyptian police. 

Knowing a little of the background to these images leaves us with many questions. Why do both illustrations show fights between a black man and a white man? How were they read by fair-goers, and how did Wood intend them? Promotional cards for Wood's boxing academy featured an image of the booth on one side; the other included the slogan 'clean British sport', firmly encompassing these black men within both Britishness and sporting virtues. Was this simply a reflection of their established place in fairground boxing, or a more deliberate comment on the racism elsewhere in the sport?

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Tommy Hall, Edwardian cycling star

Abney Park Cemetery has a grave decorated with an eye-catching bicycle. The text is less striking against its now-discoloured background, but does include the vital details: this is the headstone of Tommy Hall, 'great rider and sportsman' who was 'a record breaking and world famous cyclist on road and track'. Born in Croydon, he lived in London throughout his life.

Hall's greatest achievements were in motor-paced events. In 1903, he broke the hour record by cycling over 54 miles; the following year, he came third in the European stayer championship. 

Tommy Hall

Motor-paced races were held in velodromes and involved the cyclist following a powerful motorbike as closely as possible to take advantage of their slipstream. In often crowded events, he would be dependent upon the motorcyclist's skill in keeping clear of opponents as well as reliant upon their setting an appropriate pace - fast enough to allow him to win, not so fast that he couldn't keep up. The motorbikes were specially adapted, not only for speed but also to sit the rider as far back and upright as possible to maximise their effectiveness as a windbreak.

Bicycles were specially adapted, too. The front wheel was smaller than the back to allow the rider to get closer to the motorbike in front. High handlebars helped breathing. Support struts ensured the saddle and handlebar stem stayed rigid. 

The races were dangerous: motorbikes and bicycles were not always successful at keeping clear of each other. There were few rules, protective clothing and helmets were not worn by the cyclists, and tyres were prone to bursting at speed. The main concession to safety was a roller bar at the back of each motorbike to prevent the cyclist touching its rear wheel. Injuries were a common occurence, and deaths not unknown. The worst accident occurred in 1909, when a motorbike went into the stands, killing nine people.

The sport would become more closely regulated, and remained popular for much of the twentieth century. The world championships continued until 1994 and there are still European championships.  

Hall's career lasted until 1914. He later trained other cyclists, sometimes himself riding a motorbike as pacer. As his gravestone tells us, he lived until the age of 72, dying in 1949. Motor-paced cycling reached its extreme in 1995 when Fred Rompelberg reached 167 mph riding behind a dragster on Utah's salt flats!

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Ghost signs (135): Market Lavington

A large Wiltshire village, Market Lavington's points of interest include the church, wonderful Village Museum full of local history ... and this ghost sign.

A rather nice scroll remains clear, but the lettering is more tricky, not least because this is a palimpsest of, I think, four advertisements. Words I've been able to decipher included NOTED, HOUSE,  BOOT & SHOE, WAREHOUSE, VALUE, and BOOTS. Even the scroll has been extended at the bottom.

Happily, the museum's blog has some of the answer. In 1993, the parapet collapsed - and a photo of the damage shows that only the uppermost sign was then visible, reading 'The house that value built'. Another photo shows the wording in 1913: 'The noted boot & shoe warehouse - Lavington and Salisbury' (also visible in another post). The building was then Walton's department store.

Two mysteries solved! However, at least two signs remain to be deciphered - one which has 'VALUE' in block letters straight across, and another which has the curls and flourishes just visible today and which was probably the oldest. So, not a complete solution - but as consolation, there are more (and more legible) old signs to be seen in the Village Museum.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Gasholders, Old Kent Road

Once, they were important amenities; now, gasholders have largely lost their function, but remain familiar landmarks. Gasholder No. 13 at Old Kent Road is also recognised as an important piece of industrial history, and is Grade-II listed.

The gasholder (or gasometer) stored gas. As the tank (lift) filled with gas, it would rise up within its metal frame, with water at the base providing a tight seal. When demand exceeded supply, gas would be taken from the holder, which would descend again as it emptied. However, as town gas is no longer manufactured in local gasworks, and supplies of natural gas depend upon new pipeline technology, these huge storage tanks are no longer required. 

Why is Old Kent Road's so significant? The listing text explains that it was the largest gasholder in the world when engineer George Livesey built it in 1879-1881. It was also an important engineering innovation, using the latest techniques to create something entirely new which served as a model for future constructions. Its unusually thin wrought iron and pioneering use of mild steel were used in a structure which 'treated the guide-frame as a cylindrical lattice shell for the first time, the gasholder had to be built up tier-by-tier since it relied on the complete circle for integrity'. This would be a source of inspiration for helical structures by future engineers. 

Inside this frame, the tank was the deepest constructed at the time. It would remain one of the deepest ever built. Even the appearance of the gasholder was radical. No decoration was applied, a departure from earlier gasholder designs (and indeed Victorian industrial architecture generally). The new design was drastically cheaper than earlier constructions - and no doubt its lack of ornament helped cut costs further!

Livesey was the obvious choice to build the gasholder, and not only because of his engineering talent. It was part of the South Metropolitan Gas Company's gasworks; the company chairman was his father Thomas. Livesey was Company Secretary and would himself become chairman in 1885.

Among his acts of philanthropy was founding Camberwell Public Library No. 1 (later the Livesey Children's Museum and now closed), just across the road from the gasworks. He would also develop a scheme which allowed a gas meter, lighting and cooker to be installed in a customer's home without payment. The cost of the installation would be recovered through subsequent payments. This made gas lighting and cooking accessible to working class families.

Gasholders are now an increasingly threatened part of our industrial heritage. Obsolete, they pose challenges for reuse: the ground on which they stand is often heavily polluted. However, they are also valued as historically significant local landmarks. There was outcry when demolition of Gasholder No. 1, familiar backdrop to the Oval cricket ground, was to be demolished; it was saved by listing.  While these listed examples are secure, however, gasholders in general are disappearing from the landscape.

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