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.

Friday, 23 July 2021

Porlock Hill's listed AA box

 The AA box was once a familiar sight to Britain's motorists. When cars were both less numerous and more unreliable, these distinctive black and yellow structures offered help and reassurance to members of the Automobile Association. From their introduction in 1912 until 1919, each box was staffed by a sentry who would assist motorists with directions, first aid, and roadside repairs. Thereafter, the boxes had several functions, acting as shelters for road patrols, numbered landmarks for stranded motorists to pinpoint their location when calling for help from the dedicated phone inside, and stores for helpful items such as lights, fire extinguishers and maps. (Members had a key to access them.)

Photograph of a square, black wooden structure with yellow-painted edges, set behind a low wall with trees behind it. There are signs on it including an AA logo, 'PORLOCK HILL', and 'BOX 137'

From 1927, the boxes were of a standard design, made of wood painted in black gloss. Their apparent decoration was also functional: plaques with distinctive yellow accents included logos, the box number, and the name of its location. Edges of the walls and door were also picked out in bright yellow strips. Even the roof finial doubled as ventilation for the interior. The examples in this post are the newer, 'Ennam' model introduced after the Second World War: still black and yellow, but without the highly tapered walls of its predecessor, and with internal panels made of melamine. 

Photograph showing the top of the AA box in detail: 'PORLOCK BOX' is clearly legible.

In their mid-century heyday, over 1000 AA boxes were installed in Britain (with close to 800 in operation at their peak). As public telephones became more readily accessible, and patrol officers had well-equipped vans, so the boxes became increasingly redundant and by the 1970s, their numbers began to decline. The AA abandoned boxes in favour of telephones on poles, most familiar along motorways. Today, only a very few boxes remain - fewer than two dozen are known, of which three are in museums. One of the finest and best-known survivors is the one at the top of Porlock Hill, Exmoor, whose notoriously steep road must have brought plenty of customers in overheated vehicles! It is now Grade-II listed and was recently restored so it looks particularly fine. 

Photograph showing close-up detail of the AA box: a sign, 'CALL BOX NO LONGER IN USE AND HAS BEEN CLEARED OF ALL COMMUNICATIONS EQUIPMENT'

The AA's original activities were perhaps a little questionable. Founded in 1905 as the Motorists' Mutual Association, it dates from a time when cars were not only a rarity but also subject to highly restrictive laws, particularly around speed. Teams of cyclists were employed by the association to alert drivers to speed traps so that they could avoid being caught and penalised by the police! Its services quickly changed and expanded to include motor insurance, road signage, hotel ratings (still much used today), and roadside repairs. Its competitor, the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) is even older, having been founded in 1897 and becoming 'Royal' a decade later. It had its own network of (rather less stylish) boxed, and by the 1960s members of either organisation could use each other's boxes. 


Photograph showing the full length of the AA box

Today, motorists are expected to use their mobile phones to call for help. The demise of these boxes has removed more than telephones, however: as well as shelter and simple equipment, we have lost a reassuring landmark along our roads. 

Full-length photograph of one side of the AA box

Sunday, 11 July 2021

Tin boxes, trade unions, and tiling

Photograph of a section of brick facade. There is a tiled sign: inside a green border is a blue background with white lettering saying 'A. G. SCOTT'. Above the sign are the bottoms of two windows and the brick is in red and white stripes. Below are the tops of two windows with curved top edges, and the wall is all red brick.

This Deptford sign is so bright and colourful that it is almost surprising to find the company A G Scott made something as prosaic as tin boxes! Their headed notepaper emphasised that they made plain tins and fuel cans as well as the decorative containers for products such as tea and biscuits. 

Photograph showing a wider view of the building. The top three storeys are visible: the higher strorey has small rectangular windows and striped brickwork while the lower storeys have large rectangular windows with curved tops.  The tiled sign is at the centre, and this central section has a triangular pediment with the same striped brickwork as the top storey.

The bright colours also distract from a darker story. Tin box making was unpleasant, dangerous and poorly paid work done mostly by young women. They used power presses to stamp out the box shapes, and sometimes lost fingers to the machinery. The shapes then had to be soldered together - but were very sharp on their cut edges. The box would then be decorated, ready to be filled: a pretty product showing no trace of the poverty and injuries experienced by those producing it.

The company was established in 1890 and as they expanded, added this building - Scott House - in about 1906. Wage rates at A G Scott for 1911 survive. Pieceworkers made around 3d per hour - a little under £1 at today's values; many workers earned 5/6 a week - about £21 in current terms, and less than a skilled tradesman would have earned in a single day. The Trade Board Act 1909 allowed minimum wages to be set for 'sweated' trades: ie those with excessively long hours, poor pay, and insanitary working conditions. In response to the sweatshop conditions of many tin box factories, a minimum wage was imposed through the Tin Box Trade Board established in 1914. 

Improvements in pay and conditions were hard-fought, with prominent trade unionist Mary Macarthur involved in the campaign for better working conditions in tin box factories. The 1914 Annual Report for the National Federation of Women Workers included details of strikes in Deptford. A.C. Scott's workers appealed to the Federation after going on strike for higher wages, and 'in less than a week considerable increases were obtained which included a minimum wage of 6/6 for girls of 14 and a minimum wage of 12/- to 15/- for women of 21' depending on their work. All the women at Scott's joined the Federation: some 600 of them. The neighbouring Lloyd's tin box factory soon followed their example, and Francis & Sons on Trundley Road were not far behind; later joined by Dyson's, who also made tin boxes. Unsurprisingly, this upsurge of trade union activism was described in the report as 'the Deptford uprising'. 

Today, few traces remain of Deptford's tin box industry. Scott's moved out of the building in 1922 and it has since been a sack factory, laundry and, now, housing. This sign, then, is not just an attractive feature but a clue to the building's complex past.

Sunday, 4 July 2021

Ghost signs (143): ghost bus stops

Photograph of a wall sign. It has black text reading 'MAGPIE HALL ROAD' on an off-white background. The sign is on a red brick wall topped with broken glass and loops of barbed wire.

These ghost signs are rather unusual: they are not signs for businesses but for bus stops. They also have rather more barbed wire and broken glass above them than most examples, because they are on a wall of Chatham Dockyard.

A similar sign saying 'CHATHAM STATION'

A plaque below 'Chatham Station' explains that the signs, which have been restored, date from the days when the dockyard employed thousands of people. Many travelled to and from work by buses which stopped along Dock Road. The routes extended as far as Gravesend, Rochester, and Maidstone as well as more local destinations. 

A similar sign saying 'MAIDSTONE'

One of the stops has an intriguing name: Jezreels. In fact, this is still the name of a bus stop in Gillingham today. However, the building which inspired its name was demolished in 1961: the extraordinary Jezreel's tower.
 A similar sign saying 'JEZREELS VIA CANTERBURY STREET' 

James Roland White was a soldier in the 16th Regiment of Foot, based in Chatham. He became interested in Joanna Southcott's teachings in the late 1870s and joined a local sect devoted to them. He soon became its leader, changed his name to James Jershom Jezreel, and wrote a manuscript, the Flying Roll. In 1881, he left the army and began building a new headquarters for the sect, which had grown in numbers and means. His followers - who included people in North America, Australia and New Zealand - gave their money to the cause; the Chatham community had its own businesses including a bakery, grocery, joinery and printing workshop, so there was money available and the plans were certainly ambitious. The building was to be a steel and concrete construction 124 feet on each side and 120 feet high (a compromise between his desire for a perfect cube and the architects' attention to practical constraints). In the basement would be printing presses; an assembly room or amphitheatre would hold 5,000 people, with a round stage lifted by hydraulic power on which the preachers and choir would rotate 30 feet above the congregation; and the roof would be a giant glass dome. Around it would be fine gardens, as well as the shops and businesses run by the community. 

A large, square building with empty windows and no roof.
Jezreel's Tower in the 1920s

Unfortunately, the leader of this teetotal sect was himself a heavy drinker and died in 1885. His wife continued the building plans, although costs had become a significant issue by the time she died suddenly of peritonitis three years later. Work stopped with her death, and the building was never completed: it had walls, the basement and ground floor, as well as girders ready to support the meeting hall interior, but no roof. Nonetheless, some followers continued to occupy the building even after its sale in 1893; they were finally evicted in 1905 after falling behind with the rent. An attempt at that point to demolish the unfinished building failed, and it became a local landmark (even appearing on tourist posters) but grew increasingly derelict. Nonetheless, it survived for over half a century more before it was finally successfully demolished - in a process which took over a year. 


Image credit: Jezreel's Tower in the 1920s by Cunningham, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 30 May 2021

International Hall

On Lansdowne Terrace, Bloomsbury, is a large hall of residence for University of London students. International Hall was opened in 1962, and remains a major hall of residence today. However, we are not looking at the accommodation, but at the decoration on its exterior. 

The walls are adorned with shields, each representing a country. They offer a snapshot of the time: India, for example, was independent, but Northern Rhodesia was still two years away from becoming Zambia. Malaya had achieved independence in 1957 but would not form the federation of Malaysia until the following year. In other words, this hall does not only illustrate the international membership of the University of London but also the changing place of London and the UK in a wider, and decolonising, world. 


That is also illustrated by the stone commemorating the building's opening by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who had until the previous year been India's High Commissioner in the UK. Part of the prominent Nehru/Gandhi family - her brother, niece, and grand-nephew were all Prime Ministers of India - she had been widowed in 1944 when her husband died following his imprisonment for supporting independence. Already a senior politician who had been imprisoned three times for her work in the independence movement, Pandit became an ambassador in 1947 and first woman president of the United Nations General Assembly in 1953.