Wednesday 31 December 2008

Postman's Park updates

I've updated Postman's Park (16) on Harry Sisley to include details of the incident given at his inquest. Click here to read the new version.

I've also included a little new information in the account of Alice Ayres here.

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Tuesday 30 December 2008

Deptford obituaries, 1744

As we're in the dying days of 2008, here are some more literal deaths: all reported in the newspapers of 1744. In just a sentence or two, each obituary encapsulates some aspect of Deptford's agricultural, nautical and professional activities.
On Tuesday last as Mr Sturgis, a noted Cow-keeper at Deptford, was coming out of the Fields to his House he was suddenly taken ill, dropt down on the Grass, and died immediately. He was a very honest Man, and respected by all that knew him.

On Monday last one Mr Lanburn, who went to visit an Acquaintance on board a Ship at Deptford, had the Misfortune to fall overboard, and was drowned in sight of several Persons.

Last Tuesday Night died, after a lingering Illness, at his Lodgings at New Cross, Mr Stanley, aged 76 who was posses’d of a Fortune of 30,000 l. in the publick Funds: He had been a collector of the Customs in the North of England upwards of twenty Years.

Tuesday died, at his House at Deptford, Mr Giles an eminent Attorney, in which Capacity he acquir’d Fortune of 10,000l.
It would of course be unseasonably cynical to wonder just how Mr Stanley made that huge fortune as a 'collector of the Customs'...

Monday 29 December 2008

Guingamp basilica

Another collection of photos, this time from the lovely town of Guingamp. Its basilica is an amazing mixture of styles and periods, beginning in the eleventh or twelth century. Its porche Notre Dame (porch of Our Lady) contains not only a chapel to Mary but also a labyrinth. This floor dates from 1854 and represents the difficult path to spiritual awakening - although labyrinths have much older connotations too, from the minotaur's labyrinth in ancient Greece to the mediaeval use of labyrinths as miniature pilgrimages. (A similar revival in the use of labyrinths was also taking place in nineteenth-century England).

The thing I love best about the basilica is the way that assorted grotesques and gargoyles peep out all over it. Some even seem to be creeping into neighbouring buildings!

Saturday 27 December 2008

Ghost signs (8): Chatelaudren

Some towns in Brittany seem to have more than their fair share of ghost signs. One is Guingamp (see here); another is nearby Chatelaudren which I visited today. This one was perhaps my favourite:

Nearby was a sort of patchwork/palimpsest of ghost signs:

However, although not strictly a ghost sign, the most special - and famous - in the town is this one:

Le Petit Echo de la Mode was one of France's very first magazines aimed at family women, and enjoyed great success for many years. It was founded in 1880 by a Breton in Paris, Charles Huon de Penanster, with his wife Claire Le Roux and friend Emmanuel Ferré. Each weekly issue included a free sewing pattern, and from the 1920s was printed in the works at Chatelaudren. In 1950, it sold 1.5 million copies each week. Only in the late 1960s did the magazine begin to struggle, and the title finally disappeared in 1984. Today, the former printworks is a heritage centre - a reminder of the decades when this small, rural town was France's second centre of fashion.

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Postman's Park (19): G F Watts on tour

While I've been considering Watts as creator of the memorial in Postman's Park, he was of course best known as an artist. The Watts Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment, so its collection is on tour: see the exhibition G F Watts: Victorian Visionary at the Guildhall Art Gallery until late April.

I've not seen the exhibition yet - but there's a splendidly vitriolic review in The Times (click here). For example,
Everything that matters in art, every precious grace, every delicate touch and independent thought, every subtle nuance and lyrical turn, every brighter colour and every genuinely deep thought ...missed him out or avoided him.
Read it if you want an antidote to too much Christmas goodwill!

For a contrasting view of the exhibition, and of Watts, click here.
Practical information: exhibition open until 26 April 2009 at Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard, London EC2P 2EJ; Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sunday 12-4pm. Admission £2.50, free on Fridays.

Image: G F Watts, Hope, from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday 22 December 2008

Langourla sunset

One of the joys of the last few evenings in Brittany has been the sunsets. Another has been enjoying the amazing colours without being told they're due to London pollution levels!

Sunday 21 December 2008

Postman's Park (18): Ellen Donovan

Like drownings, fires were a frequent cause of death in Victorian London. There was even a specialist charity dedicated to addressing the problem, the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire (founded in 1836, it still exists today - find its website here). Insurance companies had fire brigades fight the flames, but it was the Society which supplied ladders to help people escape. Although that role ended with the founding of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, the Society continued to honour those who carried out brave rescues. Indeed, this was the organisation which commended Alice Ayres and sent her father a financial award.

Although such organisations sought to encourage others' efforts to rescue victims from fires, the rescues themselves could be dangerous or fatal. We have already seen several such deaths commemorated on the Watts Memorial: not only that of Alice Ayres but also George Stephen Funnell. However, there is something especially tragic about the death of Ellen Donovan since the children she went to rescue had in fact already escaped.

The fire broke out in Lincoln Court, Drury Lane in July 1873. It had begun in the room of a Ms Cowan, who had locked it and gone out. A Mrs Hussey from the floor above discovered it, and rescued several children with her husband. However, when Donovan came along later and asked "if the poor brats were out" she was wrongly told that they were still inside. She rushed to the top floor and found it empty, but as she tried to leave the staircase was on fire; the roof collapsed; and Donovan died before she could be rescued.


The newspaper report of the inquest ends with further details indicating the relative poverty of the area. The houses of Lincoln Court were built of wood; there were 21, each with 8 rooms, and 366 inhabitants. That meant an average of 17 or 18 people to each house. Nonetheless, the district sanitary inspector described them as 'perfectly habitable'.

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Friday 19 December 2008

Spinnaker Tower views

I was in Portsmouth yesterday to catch a ferry, but found time to go up the Spinnaker Tower and enjoy the views from 110 metres above the city. Here are a few of the photos.

The Historic Dockyard - HMS Warrior in the foreground, HMS Victory in the middle, and some contemporary warships

Portsmouth Harbour station - trains, boats and lorries

Spice Island and the harbour entrance

One thing that is clear from these images is the importance of ships to Portsmouth. Its history as a naval base goes back to the Roman period while the royal connection began with King John. The world's first dry dock was built here by Henry VII in 1495. There's also a Deptford connection - both became Royal Dockyards under Henry VIII. Marc Brunel would later work here, designing machines which mechanised block-making (huge numbers of pulley blocks were required for rigging and guns). Today, part of the dockyard remains active but there is also an extensive museum which includes Henry VIII's flagship Mary Rose; HMS Victory, scene of Nelson's death; and Britain's first iron-hulled battleship, HMS Warrior.

Further reading: Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust.

Thursday 18 December 2008

Little Ben

This Victorian clock mimics a larger and more famous landmark: hence its nickname, 'Little Ben'. (Yes, it should of course be 'Little Houses of Parliament Clock Tower' because the iconic tower is not Big Ben, which is the bell inside, and is not even St Stephen's Tower which is further along over St Stephen's Entrance. However, 'Little Ben' definitely has more of a ring to it.)

Little Ben was manufactured by Gillett & Johnston of Croydon, and erected in 1892. It survived the Second World War, but was taken down in 1964 when the road was widened. The clock tower was restored and placed in its current location outside Victoria Station in 1981 - with the assistance of French oil company Elf-Aquitaine, as a gesture of Anglo-French friendship. The clock had long served as a meeting place for travellers using Victoria Station, many of whom were French people taking trains to the Channel ports.

A plaque on the base bears 'Little Ben's Apology for Summer Time':
My hands you may retard or may advance
My heart beats true for England as for France

Nearby: Anna Pavlova statue.

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Postman's Park (17): the Rev. G Garnish

If swimming in the Thames was dangerous, boating also posed dangers. In January 1885, two boats collided on the river at Putney. The five men in the smaller boat fell into the river; unfortunately one of them, an E Mackenzie, was unable to swim. The Rev Garnish was in the larger boat, but jumped into the water to rescue the drowing Mackenzie. Unfortunately, in his panic Mackenzie dragged his rescuer under the water and both were drowned.

Garnish was a recently-ordained curate. Sadly, his first name was unreported both in the press and on the Watts Memorial:


For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Ghost signs (7): a Bridgwater ghost sign

I spotted this ghost sign in Bridgwater town centre, right by the river. However, although I can make out individual words (Taylor - coal - salt - oil - cotton - cake), I can't really work out what sort of business was being advertised. Any suggestions?

More ghost signs here.

Monday 15 December 2008

Somerset and the Abode of Love

Near Bridgwater is the quiet and apparently respectable Quantock village of Spaxton. There is little today to suggest that for over eighty years it was home to a controversial sect, the Agapemonites, and their Abode of Love.

The Rev H J Prince had already been thrown out of several parishes for his inappropriate behaviour, and declared himself the son of god in Weymouth, before he settled in Spaxton. He and his followers built Agapemone, the Abode of Love: a secretive building surrounded by high walls and patrolled by dogs. Within its perimeter, the followers were mainly female - and those women tended to be rich or beautiful. He proved adept at getting his hands on their money, either directly or by arranging their marriages to male followers. Prince claimed that he was the Holy Ghost, whose duty was to bring heavenly love to earth and to 'purify' virgins. However, when he had sex with 16-year-old virgin Zoe Patterson on the altar in front of his followers, some left the cult and scandal arose. The child of this rape was called Eve, and condemned by Prince as a devil child rather than his own progeny.

Prince had already weathered one scandal: having married off three of the wealthy Nottidge sisters, he planned to do the same for a fourth, Louisa. Her two brothers broke into the Agapemone to 'rescue' her - by removing her to a lunatic asylum. It took Prince 18 months to find her, but when he did he got her released by having the Commissioners of Lunacy declare her sane. At that point she returned to Spaxton and turned her inheritance over to Prince.

When Prince died in 1899 (so much for his supposed immortality!), the Rev John Hugh Smyth-Piggott took over. He showed a similar enthusiasm for women, recruiting 50 to the sect and taking one as his 'spiritual wife' and having three children with her. Eve, Prince's daughter, was by now also a senior member of the Agapemone. Even after its second leader's death in 1927, the sect managed to continue under Smyth-Piggott's wife, Ruth Anne Preece. She lived until she was 90; only after her death in 1956 did the Agapemone finally close.

Postcard image from the Somerset Record Office website.

Sunday 14 December 2008

Postman's Park (16): Harry Sisley

In mid-Victorian Britain, swimming became a popular leisure activity. Outdoor swimming pools began to appear, including the marvellous Thames Lido. However, with entry a shilling, the Lido was less appealing to many than the ponds, rivers and canals of London.

Unfortunately, swimming in open water poses greater dangers than bathing in a pool, and there is a generous scattering of drowning accidents on the Watts Memorial. I've already considered the tragic stories of David Selves who died in the Thames like his brother before him; John Clinton, swept fatally under a pier; and Alexander Stuart Brown who caught pneumonia after rescuing someone drowning at sea.

Yet another such tragedy occurred in May 1878:
a very distressing fatality occurred at Kilburn, by which two little boys, brothers, lost their lives. Some excavations have recently been made in St Mary's-field in connection with building operations, and in one of the hollows thus formed a good-sized pool of water, several feet deep, had accumulated. The two boys - Frank Sisley, aged 11 years, and Harry Sisley, aged nine - sons of a cabdriver, living at 7, Linstead-street, Palmerston-road, were, it appears, returning home from school, when they placed a plank on the pool mentioned, and amused themselves as if in a boat. The raft capsized and the two boys were drowned.
At the inquest, a fuller account of the event was given:
Having got on a raft, Frank Sisley, in attempting to reach something, fell into the water. His brother jumped in and tried to save him, but they both disappeared. One of the other boys, named Pye, then entered the water with his clothes on, and succeeded in getting Harry to the bank. He was returning to rescue Frank, when Harry uttered an exclamation of distress, and either jumped or fell into the water again. His brother "cuddled" to him, and they went under the water together. Pye then raised an alarm, but when after some delay the bodies were recovered, all efforts to restore animation were fruitless.
Hence the description in Postman's Park:


For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Friday 12 December 2008

The Kent Dispensary, Deptford

The Kent Dispensary on Deptford Broadway was established to provide medical treatment to the poor of Deptford, Greenwich, Lewisham, Lee, Woolwich, and parts of Camberwell and Rotherhithe. Founded in 1783 it was funded by subscriptions from wealthier residents. Its staff included an apothecary, surgeons and medical assistants. They could provide home visits and attend women in labour if required, but those able to reach the Dispensary were expected to go there to receive advice and medication.

Despite its aims, the Dispensary was not open to just anyone. Instead, it worked upon a system of letters of recommendation, which could be given by subscribers (a one-guinea-a-year subscriber, for example, could recommend one patient at a time and one delivery a year). Such a system was typical of eighteenth-century charities and served a number of purposes ranging from helping ensure help went to the deserving, to encouraging subscriptions by allowing opportunities for patronage.

The organisation became the Royal Kent Dispensary in 1837, with the new Queen Victoria as its patron, and in 1856 moved to a building on the Greenwich High Road which still bears its name. (When it moved, it also invited local doctors to become members of the West Kent Medico-Chirurgical Society, which still exists today.) Later still, in 1885, it became the Miller General Hospital, named for the Rev Canon Miller, vicar of Greenwich, who had been a hard-working supporter of the Dispensary. It would eventually become part of the NHS, before closing in 1974.

Further reading: charity in Deptford.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Postman's Park (15): death in the Frost

The cold weather of February 1895 became known simply as the Frost. The Illustrated Police News described it as 'terribly severe', asking 'what must be the intense suffering of those who are poor and out of work?' Temperatures of -24C were recorded in Buxton; the Thames froze over, with ice floes six or seven feet deep in places. Barges and smaller boats were trapped in the ice, leaving watermen and port workers without employment. Many people died of hypothermia, while impassable railways and canals meant dwindling coal supplies.

Even attempts to make the most of the weather posed grave dangers, as is illustrated by this account in the Illustrated Police News:
A man named Edward Blake was drowned in the Welsh Harp waters at Hendon last week. Some girls had ventured on the ice of the lake between the eastern side of the Edgware Road and the Midland Railway viaduct, and the ice broke, immersing two of them. In trying to rescue them Blake was drowned in sight of his brother, who did succeed in saving the females, but failed to rescue Blake. The deceased leaves a wife and several children.
It was perhaps small consolation to Blake's grieving family that his heroism would be recorded in the Watts Memorial:


Image: Rotherhithe in the Frost of 1895, (c) National Maritime Museum

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Wine blogging and 10 London wine facts

Yesterday I was introduced to the world of wine blogs in a tasting event organised by Robert McIntosh of wineconversation. Having sampled a number of wines created by wineries who blog, it was clear that the blogging doesn't get in the way of the quality - and what could be nicer than to read about the winery and region as you drink their wine? Try these out (all were represented last night, and they offer a good idea of the diversity of blogs available):*

Thirst for Rioja - the name is self-explanatory! Lots of lovely images to go with the discussion of this wine-making region.
Winzerblog - German for 'winemaker's blog', it includes daily 'to do' lists for real insight into winery life.
Bodega Tintoralba - a bilingual Spanish/English blog full of news, updates and videos about the winery.
Poggio Argentiera - another winery blog, Italian with some English, where readers are encouraged to offer uncensored comments on the wines.
Casa de las Vides - blog for a Valencian winery, with lots of reflections on the role of social media in marketing wine.
Cortes de Cima - a vineyard in Portugal run by a Danish-Californian family, which also produces olive oil.
Vinos de Jerez - knowledgeable and wide-ranging sherry-lover's blog.
Quevedo port wine - a nice mix of detail about Quevedo and more general discussion of port.

If you think it's a little incongruous to promote wine blogging in a country which produces so little wine, think again! London has long been at the centre of the wine trade. To mark that - and my own wine adventure - here are ten facts about London's wine connections:
  1. London has its own museum of wine, Vinopolis - taste as you learn! Aptly, it's situated in Southwark, an area known for its drunken debauchery and prositution in the Middle Ages since it was handily outside the City walls. Much of this vice was licensed and controlled by none other than the Bishop of Winchester.
  2. London wine-sellers had to have a licence. In the seventeenth century, these licences were issued from premises in a spot still known as Wine Office Court, off Fleet Street. One wine house surviving from that period is the Olde Wine Shades in Martin Lane, EC4 - although it has been substantially rebuilt and the frontage is early Victorian.
  3. An exception to the licence requirement was made for some members of the Vintners' Company, which received its charter in 1364.
  4. The Vintners, along with the Dyers and the Crown, own swans on the Thames. They mark cygnets with two nicks to the beak during the annual Swan Upping. (Swans were valued for eating, for swandown, and for their quills, used as pens).
  5. The Vintners' Company also presided over the import of wine - no small matter, since between 1446 and 1448 wine made up nearly one-third of import trade.
  6. Westminster Palace had its own vineyard in Vine Street, now more famous for its place on the Monopoly board.
  7. In the twelfth century, taverns tended to sell wine (beer was sold in aleshops) and there were said to be over 350 in London. According to William FitzStephen in 1173, 'the only plagues of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires'.
  8. Bordeaux was ruled by the English from the 12th to the 15th centuries; they even gave its wine an English name, Claret. Henry le Waleys was Mayor of London in 1274 and Mayor of Bordeaux in 1275.
  9. As his Drury Lane Theatre went up in flames, Richard Sheridan is reported to have watched from a nearby coffee house, saying, 'A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.'
  10. London diarist Samuel Pepys was more sceptical about the value of wine: on 26 January 1662, he wrote, 'Thanks be to God, since my leaving drinking of wine, I do find myself much better, and do mind my business better, and do spend less money, and less time lost in idle company.'

Sorry Pepys, but I've no intention of 'leaving drinking of wine'. Cheers!

* Apologies for the lack of accompanying tasting notes... ahem... mumble...

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Tigers in Deptford

Deptford has a long history of tigers. The first was a 200-ton ship, built in the town in 1546, which would later pursue the Spanish Armada. Another Tyger was also built here in 1647; the 38-gun ship besieged Colchester during the Civil War, followed Admiral Blake in 1650, and took an active part in the Second Dutch War. Rebuilt four times, it eventually foundered off Tortuga in the Caribbean in 1743; the crew not only fought off the Spanish for 56 days before they escaped in small boats over 700 miles to Jamaica, but even managed to take 20 of the ship's guns with them.

However, there have also been more literal big cats in Deptford. On 11 June 1732, the newspapers reported an unusual - and unwelcome - visitor to the docks:
Yesterday 7-Night, a Tyger at Deptford, on board the Cadogan, from the East Indies, broke his Chain, which obliged most of the Sailors on Board to get out of his Way, the Boys being on Shoar that used to feed him. He jump’d from Ship to Ship and cleared all before him, till a Sawyer belonging to the King’s Yard knocked him down with a Handspike, and killed him on the Spot.

Another sad end to a long journey.

Image by ktpupp on flickr, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Sunday 7 December 2008

Postman's Park (14): pantomime disaster and a spelling mistake

Search for more information about the death of Sarah Smith at the Prince's Theatre, and you'll reach a dead end very quickly. Thanks to the Newspaper Library, I found the answer to the mystery: her plaque contains a rare error. It reads:


The mistake? Sarah Smith actually died at the Princess's Theatre. However, there is also a more fundamental question as to whether the other details of her story are true.

The Princess's Theatre on Oxford Street was known for its opera, drama and latterly melodrama. It was no 'penny gaff': in 1865, Cruchley's London gave seat prices ranging from 2l 12s 6d for a private box to one shilling for a seat in the gallery. Dion Boucicault, Charles Kean and the young Ellen Terry had all worked here and although Kean's revival of Shakespeare had ended a few years earlier, the theatre was still remembered for his productions. However, in the winter of 1863 it had a more seasonal show in place: a pantomime.

Victorian pantomime offered a full evening's entertainment - as much as five hours - so the main performance was padded out with features such as ballets. Choruses commonly had as many as 30 members, including child and adult dancers. The incident of 24 January centred on one such ballet. For it, the stage was lit by 'tin pans', red and green lights; these apparently did not spark or sputter, but nonetheless set fire to the outfit of the dancer Mrs Hunt as she performed. The theatre's lighting expert suggested that the fire was caused by sparks from the match used to light the pans.

According to a witness at the inquest, Hunt ran to the side of the stage where she passed Smith, setting her on fire too. Smith - also a ballet dancer - was wearing numerous skirts, and the ballet manager didn't know whether the outer skirt had been fire-proofed. Standard fire equipment such as damp blankets should have been provided but was not available, although a fire hose was. Robert Roxby, stage manager, used his Inverness cape to put out the flames on first Hunt and then Smith.

Mrs Hunt survived her injuries, albeit scarred for life and unlikely to return to her previous career. However, Sarah Smith was not even that fortunate. She suffered burns to one-third of her body including her face, neck, back, front, chest and arms, and died in the Middlesex Hospital of 'exhaustion caused by burns'. Her funeral, paid for by the theatre lessee Mr Lindus, saw 'some demonstration of sympathy on the part of the theatrical fraternity as well as of the general public.' She was buried in Nunhead Cemetery.

The jury verdict was of accidental death, and they added a resolution that 'sufficient precautions were not taken at the Princess's Theatre to extinguish any accidental fire of the clothes of the corps de ballet. They also strongly urge the necessity of rendering articles of linen and cotton clothes fireproof by the manufacturer and the laundress.'

Throughout the inquiry, there was no suggestion that Smith caught fire while trying to save her colleague. Why, then, was Watts sure that this is what had happened? The mystery remains - although as he generally relied on newspaper accounts to select 'ordinary heroes', presumably there was a report somewhere which told the more romantic version recorded in Postman's Park. Whatever the truth of the matter, Smith's story is certainly a tragic one and a vivid illustration of the omnipresent threat of fire in the Victorian theatre.

The death appears to have had little effect on the Princess's Theatre, which remained in business for many more decades. Rebuilt in 1880, it was finally demolished in 1931 to make way for a Woolworth's store. Today, its site is occupied by HMV.

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Saturday 6 December 2008

Deptford Christmas

Today was Deptford's Christmas Market (it's also on tomorrow), where I made two discoveries. First was the project by Jaine Laine of Ourlaine archival photographic projects - which also attracted the attention of Deptford Dame - to build a photographic archive of Deptford. She has already done similar work in other areas, and is looking for all sorts of photos, old or modern, as well as people's stories and recollections to go with them. The project will be collecting photos at the Albany, 10am-6pm on 21 and 23 January 2009; find more details here.

Second discovery was Deptford Creek Honey. I couldn't resist a jar of this (especially as I'm coughing and sneezing and generally living on honey and lemon drinks!). Aptly enough for the area, the label proclaims its international flavour: the bees get to feed on plants originating from around the world as well as the Creek's wetland species such as water mint, water cress and water pepperwort. Sure enough, the flavour of this honey is complex without being heavy: delicious with lemon and hot water. Although I've heard of other urban apiaries, I hadn't come across this one (and it doesn't seem to have a web presence), which made it a very happy find!

Friday 5 December 2008

Borough's hop history

There were famously strong connections between the hop-growers of Kent and the capital. A London workforce came down to the hop farms at harvest time, picking the crop and offering a noisy disruption to rural life. After being dried in oast houses, many of the hops themselves made their way up to London, an essential raw material for its many breweries. Hops not only give beer its distinctive bitter taste, but also act as a preservative and antibiotic.

Given its convenient location on the Kent side of London, alongside one of London's oldest railway stations and right by the river and docks, it's unsurprising that Borough was the centre of London's beer industry and a focal point for the nineteenth-century hop trade. The grandest survivor of this period is the huge Hop Exchange, opened in 1868. The Queen's London (1896) described it thus:
The Hall is approached by a short flight of steps and a vestibule with large iron gates. The business of the Exchange is transacted on the ground floor, while all round and in the three galleries are the offices of merchants and others. The gallery railings are emblematic in design and light is admitted through the glass roof. The Exchange is situated in the heart of what may be called the Hop Quarter, and the district abounds in storage accommodation for the fruit.
London had many similar exchanges in the nineteenth century for other commodities such as wool and coal, but almost all have disappeared. Even the Hop Exchange has not survived unscathed. Sadly, the top two storeys and glass roof were lost following a fire in 1920; it also suffered bomb damage in World War II. The building now appears to face further risks as it is on the route of a proposed new viaduct and a compulsory purchase order has been issued - although apparently there are no plans to demolish it.

Much smaller in scale, but equally rich in Victorian charm, is the building of W H & H Le May hop factors, on Borough High Street. Like the size and splendour of the Exchange, the exuberant pictorial detail and repetition of the company name bear evidence to Victorian commercial confidence and pride.

However, the hop industry was not immune to wider historical forces. The toll taken on the Borough hop traders - including one Lieutenant Le May - by the First World War is marked in a memorial plaque on the High Street. The remainder of the twentieth century would see a shrinking away of Borough's role in the hop trade, so that these buildings are now reminders of London past.

Thursday 4 December 2008

More Christmas lights

Here's a lovely bit of Christmas cheer!

The light display is on the house of Karl Beetson in Wellingborough - a bit too far for me to visit, sadly. However, this modern christmas custom has taken off around Britain and in Brittany too - the village of Quessoy is particularly well-known for its displays, complete with a signposted route and refreshments.

It's all come a very long way from that first lighted tree in New York. I'm feeling inspired for my parents' house this winter...

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Postman's Park (13): death in a distillery well

In addition to their tribute in the Watts Memorial, three Stratford distillery workers who died trying to rescue their colleagues are also honoured near the scene of the tragedy. Godfrey Maule Nicholson was the manager of Nicholson's Gin Distillery; not yet 30 at the time of his death, he may have been a member of the owning family. He, George Elliott and Robert Underhill all died on 12 July 1901 trying to rescue a colleague, Thomas Pickett.

Their memorial on Three Mills Green (which replaced the mediaeval-style Victorian original) is of one arm clasping another, sculpted by Alec Peever in 2001. An inscription behind it states 'Of your charity pray for the souls of Thomas Pickett, Godfrey Maule Nicholson, Frederick Eliott and Robert Underhill, who lost their lives in a well beneath this spot on 12 July 1901. The first named while in the execution of his duty was overcome by foul air. The three latter successively descending in heroic efforts to save their comrades shared the same death.'

The works were also known as the 'Three Mills Distillery' and continued in operation until 1941; they are now the Three Mills Studios. In the words of the Watts Memorial:


For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

London time (2): Ruth Belville

Once a near-forgotten figure from London's past, Ruth Belville has been getting a lot of attention lately following the publication of David Rooney's account of her life. She sold something rather unusual: time.

You're a London clockmaker, your livelihood depends upon having the right time. How do you get it to-the-second exact? With no speaking clock, no radio pips, and the only super-accurate clocks in Greenwich, you had three choices. One was to use your own astronomical observations to calculate the time accurately (fine if you're good at maths and astronomy, can afford an expensive telescope, and have plenty of leisure hours). Another was to travel to Greenwich to check the Royal Observatory's clock yourself (with travel there and back, it's a half day gone - and the astronomers can get a bit grumpy at the interruption). Finally, you could subscribe to Ruth's service and she would visit you every week with her own chronometer, synchronised each Monday morning with the Greenwich clock and correct to within a tenth of a second. Unsurprisingly, the latter was a popular option.

Ruth's father John Henry had set up the service in 1836. He worked at the Observatory, and his boss was keen on the idea because it meant fewer members of the public coming in to look at the clock. After John Henry's death, his widow Maria took over the business but when she retired in 1892 at a mere 80 years old, it was Ruth's turn to become the 'time lady'.

However, things were changing. By the turn of the century, the telegraph system offered an alternative: an electronic time signal sent hourly over the wires. Later, the radio would also offer hourly time checks. It could seem that Ruth's clock-setting days were numbered, but in fact she would only retire in 1940 at the age of 86. How did she keep going so long?

One answer was through publicity. Not intentional publicity, though. In fact, Ruth attracted notoriety through a competitor's vicious slurs: St John Wynne, whose Standard Time Company sought to sell electronic signals, made a speech in 1906 which was reported in the Times. First he attacked her service as quaint in the brave new era of electronic time. As if that wasn't bad enough, he then attacked her personally for using her feminine wiles in her work. Nasty stuff, but luckily it backfired - when the furore died down, Ruth found that the controversy had worked as free advertising and her service was more popular than ever.

Another answer was that Ruth's service was simply better. Her eighteenth-century watch was actually more accurate than Wynne's electronic time signal! For all his modernity, of course, Wynne's days were also numbered - with widespread radio ownership, precise time would become generally accessible.

Ruth's impressively accurate chronometer was the one her parents had used before her. Made by watchmaker John Arnold, it had a silver case: her father had feared the original gold one would be too tempting for thieves as he walked the city streets. After her death it went to the Guild of Clockmakers, and is now on display in their museum.

Related post: Clockmakers' Museum.
Further reading: David Rooney, Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady, National Maritime Museum, 2008

Monday 1 December 2008

Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake...

Justify FullWidegate Street, one of those narrow roads opposite Liverpool Street station, has a treasure lurking just above eye level. Between the first-floor windows of a shop on the corner with White Rose Court are four reliefs depicting the making of bread: the baker carries a sack of flour, kneads the dough, bakes the loaf and finally carries a tray of bread all ready for sale. Although the store below is no longer a bakery, it is a sandwich shop which seems apt enough.

The first relief is signed 'P Lindsey Clark' and dated 1926. Philip Lindsey Clark was born in London and studied at Cheltenham and the City & Guilds School. He then served in the army during World War One; according to the London Gazette, he was awarded the DSO
for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of the left flank company of the battalion. When the enemy broke through on his left he organised a defensive flank. Finding a gap on the left he filled and held it with some of his own men and of the unit on his left. He personally led a charge against the advancing enemy and dispersed them, and later repelled another attack. He was wounded by a piece of shrapnel in the head, but though dazed continued to command his company for two days until relieved.
After the war, Lindsey Clark sculpted a number of war memorials including the one in Borough High Street. Other major commissions included several figures (St George, Christ and crib figures) in Westminster Cathedral. A friend of Eric Gill, Lindsey Clark is perhaps best known for his memorial and ecclesiastical work. However, the bakery reliefs were not his only work for commercial premises: for example, he also produced reliefs of two figures for the Gas Showrooms in Sheffield.

This narrow street, then, is lucky enough to have not only one of the more unusual decorative features in the City but also an example of the work of an important twentieth-century sculptor. Well worth pausing and looking up for!

Sunday 30 November 2008

Postman's Park (12): David Selves

The Watts Monument tells the story of young David Selves's death briefly and simply:


However, there is another tragic aspect to David's story. He was the youngest of eleven children born to George and Emma Selves. His elder brother Arthur had already died from drowning in nearby Plumstead eight years earlier, at the age of 14. The inquest verdict was 'accidental death while bathing'.

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Old photos galore!

LIFE and Google have launched an online archive of millions of old images; the one above shows workmen involved in the building of Tower Bridge. Photographs and other pictures of the United States and Europe going back to the 1860s are available and searchable.

The system isn't without a few flaws. A search for 'London' brings no results - you need to be more specific, eg 'Tower Bridge' - and the descriptions and dating are sometimes vague. However, such complaints seem a bit nit-picky given the value of this impressive resource.

Here's another image, of the Port of London seen from London Bridge in 1939:

Further reading on Tower Bridge here.

Friday 28 November 2008

London time (1): Clockmakers' Museum

With so many national museums in London, it's important not to forget the joys of smaller, specialist collections. As well as the sometimes amazing objects they contain, the best of them also offer a different perspective on aspects of wider history. One such is the Clockmakers' Museum in the Guildhall, which I visited today.

Unsurprisingly, the clocks and watches in the museum are impressive. The Guild of Clockmakers has been acquiring them since 1814 so this is the oldest dedicated collection in the world, and includes some real gems. One of John Harrison's clocks is here - H5 which finally won the longitude competition, no less. Other pieces are fascinating as much for their decorative as for their functional roles. There are novelties too - I particularly liked the early-nineteenth century self-winding clock which worked by dropping balls of zinc into sulphuric acid; hydrogen gas was produced, lifting and winding the mechanism. Somehow a battery seems so much easier...

Equally fascinating was the history of the clock industry and the Guild itself. Clockmaking has always been about more than mechanical skill alone; thus while the introduction of the pendulum should have heralded a boom, business was badly damaged by the Great Plague of 1665. The industry had already gone through lean times when the English Civil War brought the collapse of London's luxury goods market. London's history, then, is closely meshed with that of the guild.

Practical information: the museum is in the Guildhall, just down from the bookshop. It's open Monday-Saturday, 9.30-4.30, and admission is free.

Thursday 27 November 2008

Christmas lights, a brief history

One of the (few) joys of shopping at this time of year is seeing the christmas lights. Granted, some are dull and uninspired, others are blatantly commercial and sponsored, occasionally they miss the seasonal point altogether, and the saddest are just a bit sparse. Regent Street's belly-flopping stars (above) just make you think, 'why?' A happy few, like these fab giant snowmen on Carnaby Street and Jermyn Street's christmas trees, do get it pretty much right. Nonetheless, however imperfect they may be, seasonal lights definitely make the dark evenings that bit more bearable.

While lighting festive candles in winter has a very ancient history, the displays we see today are obviously more recent in origin: they depend upon the availability of electricity. The first electric christmas lights appeared in 1882 - just three years after the invention of the light bulb - when Edward Johnson of the Edison Electric Light Company lit up a christmas tree in his New York home. Its eighty lights were red, white and blue. By the end of the century strings of lights were being mass-produced, and by 1900 the department stores had taken up the new technology.

In the mid-twentieth century, the lighting displays spread out of the stores and into the streets (see a gallery of photos here). Regent Street first lit up in 1954, after an article in the Daily Telegraph commented on how drab London looked; except for a gap in the 1970s, it has had an annual display ever since. Oxford Street followed suit in 1959 - with a decade-long break from 1967 to 1978 - and trips to see the christmas lights have been a valuable way of attracting shoppers. The switching on of the lights continues to be a feature of the seasonal calendar - although it now seems to have moved back to early November. (Rare London exceptions include Hampstead, holding out until Saturday, and the Trafalgar Square tree which isn't switched on until 4 December).

And those light-less years in the 1970s? They were due to a recession - so perhaps we should all make a special effort this year to enjoy our christmas lights while we can!

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Postman's Park (11): John Clinton

According to his memorial tile,


However, a much fuller account of his life is given in a collection of inspirational stories, F J Cross's Beneath the Banner (1895). Supporting details are given in the full version such as dates and addresses, and the author lists his source as the Rev Arthur W Jephson, Vicar of St John's, Walworth. Nonetheless, John's life history involves so many heroic acts in its too-brief ten year span that one's credibility is strained.

The book tells how John was born on 17 January 1884 in Greek Street, Soho, and his family soon moved to Lambeth. The accident which killed him was not the first misfortune to befall him: playing in the street when he was six, a heavy metal gate fell on him. He was not expected to survive his head injuries, or to do so only with severe brain damage, but thanks to the care he received in St Thomas's hospital he recovered fully except for a scar.

There then followed a first daring rescue: when he was 9, John saw a much younger child about to be run over by a hansom cab. He dashed forward and pushed the child out of the way, risking himself in the process (just the sort of rescue that would have got him into Postman's Park had he not survived). Unfortunately, the child's older brother didn't realise what had happened and thumped him in the face for pushing his sibling! (He did apologise later).

Rescue number two and dramatic incident number three occurred that same year when John was home minding the baby. When he left the room for a moment, the baby set itself on fire. Luckily, John was a boy of action once more: he rolled the baby on the floor to put the fire out, before pulling down the curtains which had also caught alight and beating out the flames with his hands.

There was then another move, to Walworth, shortly before John's death. On 16 July 1894, he and a friend went out after tea to play on the Thames foreshore near London Bridge. His friend, Campbell Mortimer, got out of his depth when paddling and was swept out into the river. John jumped in after him and brought him to shore, but was himself swept away and carried under the pier. By the time rescuers found him, he was dead. After his funeral, he was buried in a common grave at Manor Park Cemetery.

Beneath the Banner, which includes the stories of John Clinton and Alice Ayres as well as many better-known heroes, is available as a PDF from Project Gutenberg here.

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Deptford Park competes for funds

Boris Johnson's latest initiative is to distribute funding for park improvements based on a public vote. For a critique of the process, I can't better Diamond Geezer's analysis here.

The choice of 10 parks for south-east London includes Deptford Park, which hopes to add a new pergola, shelter and seating as well as a picture meadow, fruit trees and community food plots, and to improve the play area. However, it will have to be in the south-east's top two to get funding: if you want to support it or any of the other 46 parks you can choose from, vote here. Don't forget that you only have one vote, use it carefully!

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Anna Pavlova in London

Anna Pavlova, the famous Russian ballerina, was born in Saint Petersburg in 1881 and died in The Hague just short of her 50th birthday in 1931. However, she has a strong presence in London: her house, her ashes and her statue are here.

In 1912, Pavlova bought Ivy House in Hampstead, which now bears a commemorative blue plaque. She had already enjoyed success in London, so when Alfred Butt built the Victoria Palace Theatre in 1911, he put her statue on top in tribute to his having introduced her to the city. Unfortunately, the compliment failed to please Pavlova who instead felt a superstitious dread of it and refused to look at it. She might not have been disappointed, then, had she lived to see the statue taken down in 1939 for safety. After the war, the statue had disappeared; it has never been found but a replica was put up in its place in 2006.

Pavlova formed her own ballet company which toured the world, an innovation which brought ballet to many more people than would otherwise have seen it. Travelling on a train in the Netherlands which derailed, she got out in her nightclothes to see what had happened: she contracted pneumonia, and died holding her Dying Swan costume in the Hotel des Indes a few weeks later. Her cremation took place near her home in London, at Golders Green crematorium where her ashes remain.

However, for all her London connections it must be admitted that Pavlova's sweetest memorial was invented in New Zealand: the pavlova dessert, a confection of meringue, fruit and cream.

Monday 24 November 2008

Paris: quarries and catacombs (2)

When Paris's overcrowded cemeteries became a danger to public health in the late eighteenth century, further burials within the city walls were legally prohbited - but the problem was not yet solved. A few years later, in 1780, a burial pit in the Saints-Innocents cemetery overflowed into a neighbouring cellar, graphically highlighting the urgency of the situation. What to do with the corpses already in the city's over-stuffed cemeteries?

An obvious answer lay literally under the feet of the authorities: the network of now-disused quarries underneath the city. Bodies were transferred from burial grounds to former quarry tunnels from 1785, in what proved to be a satisfactory solution to the problem. Undertakers' carts full of remains were accompanied by priests on their night-time journeys to the now-consecrated catacombs. Fresher cadavers - many from the first wave of revolutionary killings - were covered with quicklime. The bones were then simply piled up and their section labelled with the cemetery of origin. In total, the skeletons of nearly six million people were transferred here.

The General Inspector of Quarries at the beginning of the nineteenth century, one Hericart de Thury, had a brainwave. What if the remains were somehow made into a visitor attraction? Bones were tidied, with tibias and skulls arranged into walls and other designs. Cabinets displaying fossils and examples of bone pathology added further interest to the walk through the tunnels. Although the latter have gone, the bones themselves remain popular with visitors to Paris. The catacombs are atmospheric - although perhaps a little less so since 1972, when electric lighting was finally introduced.

Not all visitors have been equally welcome. On 2 April 1897 a secret concert in the catacombs by a group of amateur musicians caused a scandal. They played pieces including Chopin's Funeral March and Saint-Saens's Danse Macabre for an invited audience.

However, while Paris had solved the problem of its cemeteries, the issue of underpinning the city remained important. There were many more miles of quarries under the city's streets and buildings, often dangerously close to the surface. Methods of consolidation have included erecting pillars, filling existing tunnels, building a network of new tunnels, or reinforcement with metal supports and concrete. New building frequently requires deep foundations, as they must reach the bottom of the lowest level of quarry underneath - those of Sacre Coeur are exceptionally so, descending the depth of the hill of Montmartre.

Further reading (in French): Paris Secret, published by Gallimard, is not only full of fascinating information on the quarries and catacombs but is also beautifully illustrated.
Related post: Part One.