Friday 31 October 2008

Deptford news 1900 (3)

The Brockley News showed that Deptford in 1900 wasn't just a grim place where crime occurred. There was also humour, as in this anecdote from a meeting of the Vestry of St Paul's Church:
There were 396 candidates for the post of rate collector for the North Ward in succession to the late Mr Monger. Five attended before the Vestry, and the voting resulted in Mr Henry Stone, 303, New Cross-road, being appointed. A candidate demurred to the stipulation that the collector must live in the Ward, as “he had heard it was not a very nice place.” The chairman, amid laughter, assured him that “Deptford was not so black as it was painted.”
I'm not sure whether it's depressing or amusing that some stereotypes are so slow to change!

Thursday 30 October 2008

Deptford news 1900 (2)

The juxtaposition of these two news items in the same column of the Brockley News speaks for itself:


James Perrett, 54, of Giffin-street, Deptford, on remand with unlawfully wounding his wife, Annie Florence, by striking her on the head with some instrument. Mr. Llewellyn Davies defended. – The woman’s skull was fractured, and she had been in the Miller Hospital. She admitted that she was in the habit of drinking, adding, “We’re both as bad as one another.” – [magistrate] Mr d’Eyncourt said the prisoner had received great provocation, and in the circumstances would suffer one day’s imprisonment. There would be a judicial separation, with payment to the wife of 12s a week, the husband to have the custody of the child.


John Potter, 40, labourer, on remand with working a horse in an unfit state in Creek-road, Deptford. William Randall, of Besson-street, New Cross, was summoned as the owner for allowing the animal to be so worked. – Randall was committed for a month's [imprisonment with] hard labour, and Potter fined 20s and 10s 6d costs.

Indeed, the editor was moved to comment on the first case:

At Greenwich Police Court on Tuesday, a man was charged with assaulting his wife by striking her on the head with some blunt instrument, whereby her skull was fractured. Mr d’Eyncourt remarked that the prisoner received great provocation – which appeared to be true – and, whilst decreeing a separation, sentenced the accused to one day’s imprisonment. We venture to say that no amount of provocation can justify a man in striking a woman.

“The man that lays his hand upon a woman,
Save in the way of kindness, is a wretch,
Whom’t were gross flattery to name a coward.”

Another sad glimpse into Victorian family life is offered by this report:
Alfred Malcomber, 50, and Harriett Malcomber, 41, no home, willfully exposing their two children, aged 10 years and 2 years respectively. – P.C. 206M said he found the prisoners sleeping on a manure heap at the S.E. Railway-arches, Trundley’s-road, Deptford. The place was infested with rats – 50 or 60 of them – and some ran over his feet when he aroused the prisoners. – The man said they had been tramping about the country, and could not get a room. – Remanded.
The fact that the parents appeared to have had little choice but to sleep where they did, and were with their children, seems to have gone unremarked. There is no comment upon what was to happen to the children while their parents awaited trial in prison.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Postman's Park (3): Mary Rogers

The twin-screw steamship Stella was operated by the London & South Western Railway Company between Southampton, Jersey and Guernsey as an extension of its railway service to the coast. Its rival the Great Western Railway ran a service from Weymouth; the two competed on the speed of their crossings, often racing each other from the Casquets reef to St Helier. Although the companies did not officially acknowledge the competition, passengers were well aware of it and the newspapers reported it.

On 30 March 1899, both companies were running their first daytime service of the year. Travelling to the Channel Islands, the Stella hit thick fog. It was nearing the Casquets reef, notorious for its danger and the number of ships which had been lost there. Although the Casquets did have a lighthouse, the light was not visible due to the weather conditions, while the Stella didn't hear the fog signal until too late. The captain believed that the reef was still several miles ahead, a mistake which had tragic consequences: still at full speed, the Stella ran aground on the Casquets and sank in eight minutes.

Press reports stated that the conduct of those on board was exemplary, with no men leaving the ship until all women and children were in lifeboats - this appears to have been exaggerated as one lifeboat contained a number of men but only one woman, while some women and children seem to have been left on board. Those who made it to the lifeboats suffered a long night in cold seas. One capsized at launch, although survivors clung on to it; finally righted by a huge wave, it was flooded and swept along by the tide for nearly 24 hours before being found. Among those who died during its night at sea were the mother and brother of Bening Mourant Arnold, who survived only because his mother had tied the laces of his football to his shirt collar. Tragically, according to his father's memoir, Bening had sighted the lights of Alderney harbour but because another passenger believed that two red lights meant danger, they rowed away and were carried down the French coast.

Among the 105 who died was Mary Rogers, the senior stewardess. She was born in Frome, Somerset but married a seaman from Southampton. By the time of the disaster she was a widow with two grown-up children and a dependent father; her husband had been washed overboard the Honfleur six years earlier. When disaster struck the Stella, it is said that she calmly got the women out on deck and into lifeboats. One woman was without a lifebelt; Mary gave her her own. She then refused to get into the boat herself, as it was already full and she would not risk endangering it. She waved it goodbye; as the ship went down, her reported last words were, 'Lord, have me.' Her body was never found. (The accuracy of this account has been questioned by Jake Simpkin's research, but whether or not the story's details are all true, her conduct and that of the other stewardess Ada Preston certainly deserved praise; 'the greatest admiration' was expressed by the Board of Trade inquiry.)

Mary became a national hero. Feminist Frances Power Cobbe proposed a memorial; £570 was raised and the money was shared between Mary's family and the construction of a memorial on the quay at Southampton. Mary also has a stained glass window in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral; a memorial was placed on the harbour wall at St Peter Port, Guernsey in 1997. William McGonagall, best known for his poem on the Tay Bridge Disaster, was also moved to verse on this occasion although he did not mention Mary Rogers. In his inimitable style, he begins:
'Twas in the month of March and in the year of 1899,
Which will be remembered for a very long time;
The wreck of the steamer "Stella" that was wrecked on the Casquet Rocks,
By losing her bearings in a fog, and received some terrible shocks.
Rather more elegantly, Mary's plaque on the Watts Memorial reads:


Following the disaster, the two steamship companies finally agreed to co-operate. They ran services on alternate days, pooling ticket receipts: there would be no more racing. As for the Stella, its wreck was rediscovered in 1973 by divers Richard Keen and Fred Shaw. They kept its location a secret until it was rediscovered by John Ovenden. With David Shayer, he has published a book on its discovery.

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Deptford news 1900 (1)

One of the delights - or problems - with researching in the Newspaper Library is that every newspaper is full of interesting features unrelated to the topic being researched. Thus I was distracted from looking for an article in the weekly Brockley News of 12 October 1900 by various Deptford stories. Even when they were just small bits of local news, they gave a real sense of local life. Let's take a look, then, at Deptford on one random week a century or so ago.

The courts were a major source of news for the local paper, so today we'll start with a few theft-type offences. First, 21-year-old coal porter John Finley of Tanner's Hill was caught with a roll of copper wire belonging to the railway. Unfortunately, he couldn't come up with a good explanation for how he came to possess it - the police didn't believe his claim that he found it in his employer's chaff house.* Eventually, he admitted that he had stolen it and was brought before Greenwich Magistrates' Court who remanded him in custody.

More seriously, homeless Bartholomew Murphy broke into the Walter Arms beerhouse on Addey Street. He woke the occupant, Jesse Skudder, when he went into his bedroom at 1.30am; Skudder asked him, "what are you doing here?" Murphy's answer was an unconvincing "I don't know" - he had had to scale a wall, cross the wash-house roof, and force the kitchen window with an iron bar before reaching the bedroom. Skudder dressed and gave chase, only to be threatened with a knife, before fetching a policeman. Murphy claimed he was drunk that night and didn't know what he was doing. The magistrate committed him for trial at the South London sessions.

Finally, there was the Victorian equivalent of eBay fraud: George Hypolite le Bluff sold greenhouses and chicken houses by mail order from Trundley's Road. However, dissatisfied purchasers apparently found that after they'd sent the money, the goods didn't turn up. His alleged victims included Dr Collins of Aylesford, Kent; rector's wife Mrs Belcher of Frampton Cotterell, Bristol; and an unnamed miner from the Rhondda Valley. He was committed for trial at the Crown Court.

* A chaff-house was an outbuilding used to store animal fodder.

Monday 27 October 2008

8 facts on knitting history

I've just started knitting again, for the first time since my schooldays. So far it's more like a fight to the death between me and my wool than a creative craft activity (and I'm not winning...). All the same, in honour of the couple of inches of wonky scarf I've managed so far, here are eight historical facts about knitting in Britain:
  1. Because knitted items are perishable, nobody knows when knitting began. Estimates range from millennia ago to the 11th century (while knitting-like work certainly dates back to the 5th century).
  2. Since knitted stockings were a major export industry in Elizabethan Britain, knitting schools were set up to teach the poor a marketable skill.
  3. During the Second World War, people were encouraged to knit balaclavas, gloves, etc for soldiers, using wool unravelled from old clothes. See some of the patterns on the V&A website: they include balaclavas with ear-flaps for telephone operators and mittens with one separate trigger finger.
  4. Knitted items were found on the wreck of the Mary Rose, including a jerkin, fragments of woollen hose, and several knitted beret-style hats.
  5. Fair Isle jumpers were knitted by whole families in the Scottish islands. They became fashionable in 1922 when the Prince of Wales wore one to play golf.
  6. The knitted fisherman's jumper was not unique to Scotland: Guernseys or 'ganseys' were knitted in many parts of the British Isles until recently, using 5-ply wool and five needles.
  7. Among the knitted items which have fallen out of fashion is the tea cosy, which fits over a teapot to keep the contents warm. Its first documented use was in 1867.
  8. Knitting is mentioned in Jane Austen's Persuasion.

Sunday 26 October 2008

Postman's Park (2): Alice Ayres

Alice Ayres was employed as nursemaid to her sister Mary Ann or Martha Chandler's children; neighbours described her as a quiet, hard-working young woman. She and the Chandler family lived at 194 Union Street, Borough, above a shop. When a fire started in the shop during the night of 25 April 1885, Alice and the children (aged about 6, 2 and 9 months) were sleeping upstairs. Alice went to the window with one of the children, manoeuvred a feather mattress out of the window, then dropped the child to safety. Instead of saving herself next, as the crowd outside begged her to, she went back twice more, rescuing the other two children (although one would not survive the fall).

Finally, she tried to make her own escape - but too late. Smoke inhalation and exhaustion meant that she fell awkwardly, hitting the shop front and then the pavement with great force. She died two days later in Guy's Hospital from severe spinal injuries; she was 25. She was buried in an elaborate public funeral and her grave was marked with a granite monument paid for by public subscription. Her conduct was also recognised by the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, which sent a letter of commendation and ten guineas to her father.

Alice thus became a popular Victorian heroine, whose story was published not only in newspaper accounts but also in several collections of inspirational stories. As late as 1936, a Borough street was renamed Ayres Street after her. However, her story would probably be forgotten by now were it not for the unassuming plaque in Postman's Park which reads:


For all Postman's Park posts, click here.
Updated Dec '08 - thank you to Geoff Ayres for further information.

Friday 24 October 2008

London 1904 on film

This amazing film of Londoners in 1904 was shot by Charles Urban to show Australians what life in London was like. It stayed hidden and forgotten in a Canberra archive until discovered by Professor Ian Christie. Londonist points out that the film is particularly unusual among early cinema for featuring ordinary people rather than staged performances. It's an amazing window into life a century ago, complete with Edwardian outfits and cheeky children (note the boy on the bridge in the second scene)!

The full 12-minute reel, along with another 15 or so films of London, is being shown this evening in Trafalgar Square. If you can't make it on such short notice, at least we have this sample to enjoy.

Thursday 23 October 2008

Deptford X revisited

As Deptford X moves into its last days, Fran Cottell's Golden Balls are perhaps looking for new homes via local charity shops:

I spotted another Polite Metropolis notice outside St Paul's Church (and yes, the phone number is a real one!):

And as we're warned that Britain is entering a recession, giant parcel tape is holding Deptford's shops together to prevent a collapse:

Related post: Deptford X-cels!

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Postman's Park (1): the park

A tiny patch of green among the City's buildings, Postman's Park was created in 1880 from the former churchyards of St Leonard, Foster Lane; St Botolph Aldersgate; and Christ Church Greyfriars. Its name comes from its proximity to the old General Post Office: the park was a popular place for postal workers to take a lunchbreak. Today, the park retains a Victorian feel, especially in the early autumn.

If the park has a theme, it is not the Royal Mail but memorials. Gravestones are now stacked at its edges.

More famously, and uniquely, a wall in the park displays rows of ceramic memorials to heroic self-sacrifice. Each tile commemorates someone who gave their life to save another; the emphasis is upon 'ordinary' people. This wall was the work of artist and social reformer George Frederick Watts. He wrote to the Times in 1887 suggesting such a memorial, but when the idea failed to be adopted he funded the project himself. The plaques, designed by him, were made by Royal Doulton; he seems to have selected the cases from newspaper reports. They were meant to serve a dual purpose: commemorating those who would otherwise be forgotten, and offering each story as an instructive example to others.

The memorial opened in 1900, with four plaques in place. Watts was personally responsible for a further nine before a committee was formed in 1904 to assist him. He died soon after, but his wife and the committee worked together to place a further forty tablets. The final tablets were unveiled in 1930. Despite occasional suggestions that further plaques should be added, none have been.

Accounts of Postman's Park often quote from some of the plaques, but all the stories deserve our attention - for the bravery they commemorate, for their human interest, and for the snapshot of Victorian England which they offer. I'm therefore going to be posting on each plaque in a more-or-less regular series. However, as we read these tales of Victorian heroism, we can also wonder: why hasn't the tradition continued since the deaths of Watts and his widow to commemorate today's ordinary heroes?

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Pudding: a poem

We may have celebrity chefs, but where are the rhyming recipes? My old favourite Enquire Within Upon Everything has a recipe-in-a-verse for Mother Eve's Pudding (complete with the odd riddle). Variations of this poem seem to have been popular throughout the nineteenth century: there are American versions too, with appropriate changes such as losing the references to shillings and maids. Today, not only novelty recipes but also puddings that you boil for three hours have rather gone out of fashion...

Mother Eve's Pudding

If you want a good pudding, to teach you I'm willing;
Take two pennyworth of eggs, when twelve for a shilling;
And of the same fruit that Eve had once chosen,
Well pared and well chopped, at least half-a-dozen;
Six ounces of bread (let your maid eat the crust),
The crumbs must be grated as small as the dust;
Six ounces of currants from the stones you must sort,
Lest they break out your teeth, and spoil all your sport;
Six ounces of sugar won't make it too sweet;
Some salt and some nutmeg will make it complete;
Three hours let it boil, without hurry or flutter,
And then serve it up, without sugar or butter.

(Or in othe words, combine 2 eggs, 6 peeled, chopped apples, 6oz fine fresh breadcrumbs, 6oz currants, 60z sugar, a pinch of salt and a pinch of nutmeg. Boil [tied in a cloth] for three hours.)

Modern Eve's pudding recipes not only fail to rhyme; they also make a rather less frugal dessert in which apples are topped with a sponge mixture.

Image by, shared under a Creative Commons license.

Another Deptford blogger!

Thanks to Deptford Dame for introducing me to Deptford Se8ker. They've been blogging since late September (when they did better than me at touring the Waldron Health Centre for Open House weekend) and the latest post points out the air raid shelter signs to be spotted locally.

Monday 20 October 2008

London sightseeing: when did it get so slow?

No, this post isn't going to be a rant about tourists who stop dead in the middle of the pavement or amble along in huge groups in the middle of rush hour (tempting as that is!). Rather, it was prompted by considering some 'London in a day' sightseeing itineraries of the past. They make today's hop-on, hop-off bus tours seem a very lazy option!

As recently as the 1950s, Ward Lock's London suggested the following itinerary, apparently to be completed largely on foot, for 'London in one day':

National Gallery
National Portrait Gallery
Whitehall (passing Government Offices, Royal United Service Museum and the Cenotaph).
Houses of Parliament. (
Open on Saturdays and Easter and Whitsun Mondays and Tuesdays).
Westminster Abbey.
Westminster (R.C.) Cathedral.
Buckingham Palace (exterior).
St James's Park.
St James's Palace (exterior).
Luncheon in neighbourhood of Piccadilly or Leicester Square.
Regent Street.
Oxford Street.
Wallace Collection, Manchester Square.
Drive through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.
Royal Academy.
British Museum.
Lincoln's Inn (walk through).
Law Courts and Temple.
Particularly impressive is the expectation that you will actually go into the institutions not marked 'exterior only': 4 art galleries, a museum and two cathedrals in a day doesn't allow much time for contemplation. (There were also suggestions to fill the remaining daylight hours should you be staying overnight).

The 1920s had been equally hectic: Enquire Within Upon Everything didn't set out an itinerary but did expect that a visit to, for example, the Tower of London would be grouped with 'St Paul's, the Bank, Royal Exchange, Monument, Mansion House, Guildhall, and so on'. However, such exertions pale beside one Victorian's epic sightseeing.

When James Patterson visited relatives in Camden, he was determined to 'see' London. Thus on 27 December 1858, he met his uncle in Albany Street from where they spent a day's sightseeing on foot which included St James's Park, Westminster, the Abbey, Charing Cross, Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, Covent Garden, Waterloo Bridge, the Strand, St Paul's, Guildhall, London Bridge, a steamer to Greenwich passing Milwall shipyards where the Great Eastern was being built, a tour of the Royal Hospital and its paintings, a walk through Deptford Dockyard to see more ships being built, then through the Thames Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping, St Katherine's Docks, Tower Hill, and finally a train home. Compared to that marathon feat, Ward Lock's tour is for lightweights!

I was introduced to James Patterson at a lecture by Chris Hilton, Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library. It was part of a day of events to launch Medical London, a boxed set including book, gazeteer and walks which I'd highly recommend.

Related post: Advice to sightseers

Saturday 18 October 2008

Hydraulic power beyond Limehouse

When I visited the Limehouse Accumulator Tower as part of Open House weekend, I learned a great deal about the use of hydraulic power to operate locks and cranes in the docks area. However, I was also intrigued by the comment that this power was piped to the West End for use in theatres.

A little research confirmed that there was a network of underground pipes providing hydraulic power throughout London. The London Hydraulic Power Company was incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1871, and only closed in 1977. As early as 1893, six and a half million gallons of water were pumped each week; gradually, the company's reliable service took over from the smaller power plants providing the docks.

As well as its industrial uses (operating machinery such as presses), hydraulic power was indeed used by non-industrial customers such as theatres. In fact, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane had used hydraulic apparatus for a production back in 1829, over twenty years before hydraulic machinery was introduced to Limehouse Docks; with the availability of the piped network, its use took off throughout the West End. The Royal Opera House curtains and Coliseum turntable both used hydraulics, as did the stage machinery in other theatres - hydraulic power allowed new and dramatic special effects. Indeed, late-Victorian 'sensation' productions relied on such effects for their appeal. Theatre Royal Drury Lane's production of The Whip, for example, built up to a dramatic train crash live on stage followed by the running of a horserace (the horses ran on a 'travellator'). Such elaborate effects carried their own risks, of course - on the play's first night, its equine hero 'The Whip' lost the race and the judge's box shot into the air! (Luckily, the rest of the run went more smoothly, and it lasted for 388 performances and a successful tour). More mundanely, but crucially, when safety curtains became standard they were often made of iron - again, the ability of hydraulic power to lift heavy weights was invaluable. This form of power was also quiet, powerful and clean.

Hydraulics continue to be used for lifting and lowering stages such as the Lyttleton Theatre's proscenium stage today, although there is no longer a central supply to draw on. Instead, the underground network of cast-iron pipes (some 150 miles of it) is now owned by Cable & Wireless and carries optical fibre cable.

Image: 'The Whip' (c) The Theatre Museum (Victoria and Albert Museum). For more amazing images from theatre history, visit their PeoplePlay website.

Related post: Limehouse Accumulator Tower

Friday 17 October 2008

Buying London books

If you want London books other than tourist guides and new publications, the usual chain bookshops can be a disappointment. Browsing second-hand bookshops or ebay throws up finds, and local bookshops or those attached to local museums are often strong on their area. However, for London-wide coverage, here are a couple of my favourites for browsing a more in-depth selection:

Guildhall Library Bookshop is quite tucked-away and doesn't seem to be terribly well-known: I came across it almost by chance at London Maze. However, it's full of books about London (and pretty much nothing else). You can combine it with a visit to the Guildhall Art Gallery or Clockmakers' Museum.
Aldermanbury, London EC2V 7HH; open Monday-Friday 9.30am-4.45pm.

The Museum of London shop has an interesting and varied selection of books on London history. (You can also visit a few galleries of the Museum, although much is currently closed for refurbishment).
150 London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN; open Monday-Saturday 10am-5.50pm, Sunday 12pm-5.50pm.

Online, AbeBooks is a brilliant resource for finding second-hand and out-of-print books. It allows you to search through the inventories of booksellers worldwide, and I've usually found what I'm looking for there.
If I've left out your favourite, do leave a comment and let me know!

Thursday 16 October 2008

Grinling Gibbons: Deptford boy made good

Grinling Gibbons was born in the Netherlands in 1648, probably to an English father; we know little of his childhood. By 1671 he was living in "a poore solitary thatched house" in Deptford and possibly engaged in ship-carving. Here the diarist and owner of Sayes Court, John Evelyn, discovered him by chance and recognised his extraordinary talent for woodcarving. Evelyn introduced him to Sir Christopher Wren; his career quickly progressed from that point and he worked for Wren on St Paul's Cathedral as well as being commissioned by Kings Charles II and George I.

Gibbons died in 1720, leaving work in London churches and English country houses, as well as Windsor and Hampton Court Palaces. He also left behind a small mystery: how did he get such a polished finish when sandpaper had not yet been invented? The answer was discovered by woodcarver David Esterly: the wood was rubbed with a common Dutch weed, Equisetum hyemale (horsetail).

Gibbons' reputation for woodcarving is unsurpassed; his carving of foliage was particularly admired as he introduced a new naturalness and informality. He also worked in stone, and one of his statues still stands at St Thomas's Hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament. It portrays Sir Robert Clayton, a former President of the hospital.

Despite his subsequent success, Gibbons apparently did not forget Deptford: a panel depicting Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, and possibly the magnificent reredos, in St Nicholas's Church are his work.

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Martial Bourdin and Greenwich's anarchist mystery

On 15 February 1894, Martial Bourdin's walk through Greenwich Park ended in disaster when he tripped over. As he fell, he dropped a bomb which went off and blew away his left hand and stomach. He was taken on a stretcher to the Seamen's Hospital, but died there half an hour later. Police soon discovered his name and that he was a 26-year-old Frenchman staying in Fitzroy Street; he had taken the tram to Greenwich that morning, carrying a large amount of money in addition to the bomb.

Although still able to speak immediately after the explosion, Bourdin didn't say anything about what he had been planning to do. It was assumed that he had intended to blow up the Royal Observatory, but nothing is known for certain. Revolutionary bombings had been a problem throughout Europe in the late nineteenth century: most famously, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated by bomb in 1881. There had been several anarchist bombings in France in the months before Bourdin's accident; later that year, the president would be assassinated. Bourdin was connected to other foreign anarchists through his membership of Club Autonomie, which police raided shortly after his death - but no one was charged.

Nonetheless, initial press reports spoke of an international conspiracy with Bourdin as head of a gang. Graphic accounts were given of his injuries and it was wrongly claimed that his hands were covered in an (impliedly demonic) black substance which would not come off. The Times hinted that his funeral was being planned from Paris or Ireland; the MP for Deptford, Charles Darling, was sufficiently concerned about it becoming the focus of an anarchist demonstration that he raised the matter in parliament. His suggestion was that as Bourdin had brought about his own death, his body should be quietly disposed of as a suicide's. The Home Secretary declined to order such a step or to keep the body unburied until the coroner's verdict. In the event, although Bourdin's funeral did attract fellow anarchists, they were outnumbered by the police and a hostile crowd.

We still don't know exactly what Bourdin meant to achieve. His bomb was too small to cause major damage, and the Royal Observatory seems a rather unlikely target. The New York Times pointed out that since Britain was something of a refuge for anarchists, it would be against their interests to commit an outrage here; indeed, Britain's anarchists either ignored the incident or denied involvement in it. Maybe he didn't mean to blow the observatory up at all: it has been suggested that he was attempting to dispose of the bomb before leaving the country or had been duped into carrying it (perhaps by his police-informer brother-in-law). Such an outrage might have served the interests of those trying to pass anti-immigration legislation, or of foreign governments hoping to provoke a British clampdown on anarchist activity. On the other hand, the observatory did represent science and the worldwide regulation of time, while the police assumed that the money indicated an intention to flee the country.

There is nothing in the Park to mark the incident; Bourdin's most lasting legacy is his role in inspiring Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent. As Transpontine has remarked, his story is certainly a contrast to the royalty-focused history of Greenwich Park given to tourists - don't expect it to feature strongly in 2012, should controversial proposals to hold Olympics equestrian events there go ahead ...

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Marshall Hall, the 'great defender'

Anyone with an interest in Edwardian criminal trials has probably heard of Sir Edward Marshall Hall KC: he was the most famous criminal barrister of his day. He still has a reputation as England's greatest legal advocate, although some of his tactics would be unacceptable in modern courts and his style far too flowery and emotive. Most famously, in his closing speech at the murder trial of prostitute Marie Hermann, he ended with 'Look at her, gentlemen of the jury, look at her. God never gave her a chance, won't you?' The jury did, convicting her of manslaughter rather than murder.

He had taken his law degree at Cambridge, and was called to the Bar in 1883. (Despite an early interest in acting, he was unable to memorise lines). At first, he made more money from dealing in jewels than from his legal practice. Soon though, matters improved and with the Marie Hermann case his reputation was established. Marshall Hall's talents did not, surprisingly, extend to a strong grasp of the law. Robin De Wilde's profile of him in this year's Inner Temple Yearbook notes that he would openly request his junior to argue difficult points of law.* However, he was good-looking and charming, with a beautiful speaking voice. He also used tricks such as provoking the judge to lose his temper so that the court appeared biased against him and his client, arousing the jury's sympathy.

It is for his murder cases that he is best remembered. One made legal history: defendants had only been able to give evidence in their own defence since 1898, and his client Robert Wood was the first person to be acquitted of murder after giving evidence on his own behalf. In another notorious case, Madame Fahmy shot her Egyptian husband dead in the Savoy Hotel but was acquitted after Marshall Hall attacked the victim's character at trial, not least by playing on racist stereotypes.

However, by no means all of Marshall Hall’s cases ended in success. Most famously, George Joseph Smith was convicted in the ‘brides in the bath’ case in 1915. He had bigamously married at least three women; each would insure her life or make a will in his favour; they would take lodgings in a house with an indoor bathtub; Smith would claim to a doctor that his wife was epileptic or prone to fainting; and soon after, she would drown in the bath, where Smith would discover her. Medical evidence showed that accidental drowning was impossible in the bath tubs involved. Although Smith was only charged with the murder of his first wife, the court allowed evidence of all three deaths to go before the jury: the case was thus hopeless and Smith was convicted and hung.

Marshall Hall was also an MP for twelve years, but was not a successful politician. His maiden speech, which proposed doorstep deliveries of ale so that children would not have to go into public houses to fetch it for their fathers, was greeted with derision. He died of pneumonia in 1927, surrounded by his family. It is for his criminal cases that he is still remembered today.

* As a King's Counsel, a senior barrister, he would have a 'junior' - a non-KC, not necessarily either young or inexperienced -to assist him in his cases.

Monday 13 October 2008

Deptford X-cels

Deptford X art festival is well underway, and I had time this weekend to enjoy some of the events. They're just a sample, because the festival is huge in scope and still has a week to run, but they do give some idea of the variety on offer.

St Nicholas's Church is the venue for two works. Yinka Shonibare's White Flag at Half Mast, literally a white flag, flies from the top of the tower. You can view it from below, or climb the narrow spiral stairs to get up close (Saturdays only). I would have loved to do the latter if only for the views over Deptford, but spiral-staircase-specific claustrophobia kept me at ground level! I found the flag rather unexciting, but one advantage of so much artwork packed into a small area is that there's always something else to see. In this case, I just strolled down into the crypt for Matt Stokes' video Cipher whose organ music also echoes rather atmospherically around the church nave.

In the courtyard behind the Deptford Project cafe are a variety of works:

The Creekside Centre also has an assortment of pieces, based upon things found in the creek:

Fran Cottell has placed Golden Balls around Deptford in reference to the golden pawnbrokers' sphere, itself symbolising money. (Deptford Dame has done a better job of spotting them than me). This pair are only a few doors from a couple of genuine pawnbrokers:

An audio tour, Pavement Sonnets, Deptford Scars, links many of the sites. The start is a little off-putting ('this is a walk, not a stroll') but once you're underway the walk is fascinating and full of local history. Download audio files and map here, and start at Ha'penny Hatch footbridge over Deptford Creek (which has one of Cottell's golden balls too).

I've done more than appears here, but still barely scratched the surface of the festival. There's another week to try and catch up! For more information see the Deptford X website.

Related post: Deptford X revisited

Saturday 11 October 2008

No more blackberries!

One of the greatest free foods is the blackberry - even if picking it is liable to leave you covered in scratches and frustrated at the way the best berries always seem to be just out of reach. Sadly, many of the places that used to be good for blackberrying are now built over, but it's worth hunting out some brambles or growing your own. In Brittany this summer, I picked kilos of the fruit and made most of it into bramble jelly.

The best berries are those that ripen first, but there's another reason to stop picking them now: they've been touched by the devil! My vague suspicion that this tale was invented by my mum when she couldn't stand blackberrying any more was wholly unfounded; in fact, it's a longstanding belief which is found in many parts of Britain.

The story is that the devil was thrown out of heaven by St Michael on 11 October (Michaelmas Day in the old calendar),* and landed in a blackberry bush. Still angry at that prickly landing, he spits on the berries every anniversary, making them inedible. (In some versions of the legend, he pees on them). Since blackberries are indeed past their best by now, devil's work or not, it's a good day to exchange brambles for bramble jelly!

* Leap year's days don't fully correct the calendar, so by 1752 it had got eleven days ahead of where it should be, meaning solstices, equinoxes and so on were happening on the wrong days. To correct the problem, eleven days were simply left out of September that year, so we went straight from 2 September to 14 September. That pushed some events, like Michaelmas day, 11 days back too. Don't worry, we shouldn't have to lose any more days - we now leave out the leap year's day at the turn of a century unless it divides by 400 (so 1900 wasn't a leap year but 2000 was), which keeps things as they should be.

Friday 10 October 2008

Deptford's anchor: a potent symbol of the past

The anchor at the end of Deptford High Street very obviously commemorates the town's seafaring past. However, it is more than simply a symbol of ships and dockyards: it is also a reminder of the tragic side of London's maritime history.

Deptford had multiple connections with the slave trade. Just a few examples: Catherine of Aragon arrived here with two slaves when she came to marry Henry VIII's elder brother Arthur; Sir Francis Drake, knighted in the town, played an important part in establishing the transatlantic slave trade with his uncle and Deptford resident Sir John Hawkins; ships built and refitted in Deptford went on to carry slaves across the notorious middle passage from Africa to the Caribbean and America. The traces remain visible: Paul Hendrich has drawn out the symbolism of slavery visible on that monument to civic pride, Deptford Town Hall.

However, the anchor is more than a tangential reminder of Deptford's links to the slave industry. It can also be read as a more direct symbol of the strong connections between Britain's maritime and slave-trading histories, through the figures of Sir Ambrose Crowley and his son and heir John. A leading steelmaster in the early eighteenth century, Sir Ambrose's huge factories foreshadowed the manufacturing advances of the Industrial Revolution. He made his fortune as a naval contractor during the Anglo-Dutch war with France; when that ended, he and his son turned to the transatlantic trade. They had a virtual monopoly on anchor manufacture; other major products included agricultural implements for American and Caribbean plantations worked by slaves, and chains and manacles for slave ships.

Crowley's factories were in north-east England but he preferred to live in Blackheath to be near London's shipping. In order to manage his factories from this distance, he laid down detailed 'Rules of the Crowly Iron', ironically known for their fairness to his workers and provision of welfare facilities. Outworkers were employed making nails in the Midlands; he also built a large warehouse at Highbridge, until then marshland beside the Thames at Greenwich.

Crowley was, therefore, a pioneering figure in England's manufacturing history; a man closely involved with the shipping industries in Deptford and Greenwich; and a key supplier of horrific equipment to the slave trade. This intimate connection between England's industrial, maritime and slave-trading histories is neatly encapsulated by the placement of an anchor in Deptford High Street.

Related post: Sir Francis Drake

Thursday 9 October 2008

Art history raced

I've already posted about the 500 years of female portraits in Western art video and the near-absence of women artists. While the video deservedly won praise, however, one question was asked repeatedly: why are there no images of black women?

Of course black women have been represented in Western art. However, even when they are there on the canvas they can still be treated as invisible. I've discussed the career of Victorine Meurent, Manet's favourite model and an artist in her own right. In one of her most famous portrayals by Manet, as the courtesan Olympia, there is another women in the image too: a nameless black servant carrying a bouquet. History has been even harder on her than on Meurent: this model's name is not known. Wikipedia refers to "the model" in the painting, as if there were not two women present; a Salon article discusses the painting and the figure of Olympia at length but barely mentions her maid. This is not to suggest for one moment that there are not analyses of race in art: the point is that they have been ignored by these mainstream discussions of such works.

The courtesan's challenge to the viewer is perhaps in part due to her dominant position in the painting, able to ignore her submissive black maid. The maid herself adopts a more traditionally female pose, her eyes turned to the side rather than meeting and challenging those of the viewer. Her face almost merges into the background; more visible are her dress and the flowers she carries to Olympia - the image obscures her even as it portrays her. At a more symbolic level, in the nineteenth century racially "other" women were often viewed as more sexualised than white European women, so that the presence of a black maid functioned to highlight Olympia's own (excessive) sexuality.

To focus upon both figures in the image, rather than to treat the maid as background decoration, is to change the way we read the painting altogether. It shifts from being a portrait of one woman to something more like a narrative work where we ask questions about the nature of the interaction and relationship between the women. Our experience and understandings of the work can then become all the richer.

Thus there are racial as well as gender dynamics to this painting which merit being placed in the foreground. (Nor are they purely historical: see the analysis of a contemporary image here.) It is unfortunate that so many discussions of the image leave them as obscured as the maid herself.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Drift 08 - art on the Thames

I can't say I wasn't warned - Londonist had been less than enthusiastic - but I still went along to have a look at some of the seven art installations which make up Drift 08. The idea is brilliant: art placed along the Thames to bring it 'out of the galleries and into public places so it can be enjoyed by everyone'. There are pieces at various points in the rive between Blackfriars Bridge and Canary Wharf.

Ghost Bridge particularly appealed, because I have a soft spot for the remains of the first Blackfriars Railway Bridge and loved the idea of its ghostly reincarnation. Unfortunately, I had to agree with Londonist that 'whichever way you view it, it’s just some green lasers across the river.' In fact, not even: from some points you could barely see the lasers and from others the equipment was that bit too visible. A nice idea, and the green light is certainly attention-catching, but...

Saved from Drowning is quite fun, but perhaps less meaningful than it aspires to be. It was not so much a 'steel painting' recalling those who have drowned in the river as a rather wonky mirror.

This piece is Migration. Unfortunately, it is rather unassuming (you might miss it altogether if you weren't looking for it) and is thus overshadowed by its neighbours: London Bridge, the Tower of London and HMS Belfast.

Biggest disappointment was 'Classification Pending', which had sounded lovely - at dusk, mythical creatures are projected into the river under London Bridge. Unfortunately, I couldn't actually see them - and I wasn't the only bemused person gazing forlornly at a Drift 08 map. Perhaps something had gone wrong; perhaps the map didn't pinpoint the spot clearly enough (it's rather vague); or perhaps the creatures are very, very shy. Whichever, this was one piece unlikely to be 'enjoyed by everyone'.

I love the idea of this exhibition. I quite enjoyed spotting a few of the pieces. However, it also felt like a missed opportunity to have some really exciting work in this most public of venues. The plan is for the festival to be an annual event: here's hoping we get something more enticing next year.

Practical info: there's still time to see the exhibition, which is on until 19 October 2008. Works are visible from bridges and walkways; the map (PDF) is here.

Related posts: Deptford X-cels, Deptford X revisited

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Whatever happened to the Thames Lido?

I bought a slightly-out-of-date-and-therefore-really-cheap guide to the Thames a little while back, and found an intriguing entry for the Thames Lido, due to be completed in 2001. There was a precedent for such a floating pool: around 1875, a floating swimming bath was moored in the river at Charing Cross. It was a covered building containing a large pool with deep and shallow ends, changing cubicles, and even a bridge to dive from. The water was drawn from the Thames, filtered and heated. Admission was one shilling.

Obviously the lido never did appear, which is a real shame: it would have been an Olympic-size pool, 40 metres out into the river, which rose and fell with the tide. A clear covering was to offer swimmers all-round London views, and could close to protect them from bad weather. See the architects' image here.

So what went wrong? Unfortunately, it proved just too expensive - and so disappeared like so many British lidos. Instead, the current plan is for an ordinary indoor pool - as part of a controversial high-rise development.

Monday 6 October 2008

From Deptford Dockyard to the University of London

What connection does Deptford Dockyard have to the University of London? The answer is that a hospital ship moored there nearly 200 years ago was the seed of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, today a college of the University.

The Seamen’s Hospital Society was established to care for sailors in the merchant navy and fishing fleets, ie those outside the Royal Navy and its institutions. In October 1821, seven months after the society’s first meeting, a hospital ship came into service at Deptford: HMS Grampus, a former naval vessel. It had been commissioned in 1803 and was employed in the East Indies, the Cape of Good Hope, and as a troopship before its latter career as a floating hospital. The ship’s surgeon, Dr David Arnott, was paid £150 per year. The hospital treated sailors of all nations; during cholera outbreaks it would moor a smaller boat alongside to act as an isolation unit. The ship’s capacity was soon stretched as it treated over 2,000 people a year.

Ten years later, the Society’s hospital moved onto the larger HMS Dreadnought (and then a second ship, also renamed Dreadnought). When it came onshore and took over the former Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich in 1870, it renamed it the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital and began to employ female nurses for the first time. This hospital would continue providing care to seamen at Greenwich until 1986; today the former premises are part of the University of Greenwich.

Such medical services were important for two reasons. First, in the days before the NHS, people often relied upon charitable institutions to provide medical care. The Seamen’s Hospital Society was one such charity. Second, sailors often had specialist medical needs which the hospital met in two notable ways. One was its campaign for lime juice to be provided to sailors to prevent scurvy; the other was the realisation that as sailors’ work took them around the world, they might contract diseases unfamiliar to most British doctors. The ability to treat such illnesses was central to the development of the Society’s facilities.

In 1890, the Society opened a new branch of the hospital: the Albert Dock Seamen’s Hospital. Here, the London School of Tropical Medicine was established in 1899 by Sir Patrick Manson, who had worked in the Far East and believed strongly in the importance of training doctors to properly treat people dying of tropical diseases. The School moved to central London in 1920. At the same time, the Society created a Hospital for Tropical Diseases near Euston Square; it still exists today, as part of the University College Hospitals NHS Trust. The Society itself also continues to look after the welfare of sailors through grants, a benefits advice line, and the Dreadnought Unit at St Thomas’ Hospital.

Sunday 5 October 2008

Art history express

Enjoy 500 years of female portraits in Western art - in just 3 minutes - with this wonderful video. It was created by EggMan (Philip Scott Johnson) and got a lot of online attention when it first appeared, but is always worth another look:

If you're struggling to identify some of the images, check them out on this site which matches a thumbnail of each to the title, artist and date.

However, you might notice that only two of the artists were women (Mary Cassatt, an impressionist painter from a wealthy American family, and Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, a French court painter patronised by Marie Antoinette). Some explanation of that statistic can be found in the story of Victorine Meurent, discussed by novelist V R Main in the Guardian on Friday. She is best known as Manet's favourite model, and it has often been assumed that she was also his mistress if not a prostitute - although she probably never slept with him at all. In reality, Meurent was herself an artist and financially independent - no mean achievement for a working-class woman in the mid-nineteenth century, when women were denied formal artistic training. Indeed, she exhibited at the 1876 Paris Salon (Manet's submission was rejected) and again in 1879, 1885 and 1904. In 1903 she was admitted to the Société des Artistes Français. All her work was believed lost, but one painting has recently been acquired by the museum in Colombes where she lived for the last 20 years of her life with Marie Dufour, a piano teacher.

Despite such odds and obstacles, some women have succeeded as artists throughout history. Matters are improving - slowly - and you can visit an impressive collection of work by contemporary women artists at the online gallery of New Hall College Cambridge's Art Collection.

Related post: art history raced

Saturday 4 October 2008

London: advice to sightseers

The Victorians had a book which enabled them to 'Enquire Within Upon Everything' from recipes for opium-rich home remedies to the language of flowers; from addressing dukes to getting rid of your local accent; and from choosing furniture to choosing your baby's name. My copy is a fairly late one (the 110th edition!), so articles on the desirability of owning a motor car and a wife's right to keep her own earnings have also crept in. Another innovation is 'Advice to Sightseers', a selection of tips on visiting London:

1. Before starting on your holiday spend two hours in studying a good guide-book and mapping out a programme for each day of your stay in London. Note that some institutions, as the British Museum, are open free every day; some, as the National Gallery, are open free on certain days and for a fee on others; some, as the Mint and Woolwich Arsenal, are open on specified days and under stringent conditions. These things should be ascertained from the guide-book before leaving home, and your programme modified accordingly.
['Enquire' is never afraid to be prescriptive - take two hours precisely! - or to state the obvious.]

2. Group the sights so as to economize your time. For example, avoid such a programme for a day's doings as this - the Tower; Tate Gallery; Madame Tussaud's; Greenwich Hospital; Hyde Park. To "do" these sights in a day would put a great deal of time to waste.
[To do these sights in a day would require you to sprint non-stop and skip lunch! Perhaps you should have spent more than two hours with the guide book.]

3. Ask your way of a policeman, postman, telegraph boy, or shopkeeper. If you are in a residential quarter, you will be compelled to resort to the courtesy of the casual wayfarer; but in that case take the direction from him and then pass on.
[This is the start of an obsession with not chatting to Londoners, but you might rebel and pause to say thank you.]

4. If you feel that you are taking the wrong road, do not proceed farther until you have ascertained whether you are right or wrong. You have a civil tongue; do not hesitate to use it.
[But only in accordance with (3) - remember not to stand around chatting. A pity you weren't advised to get a map.]

5. If a stranger get into conversation with you in a gallery, or church, or the street, make himself particularly affable, claim that he thinks he has met you before or that he comes from the same town or district as yourself, be on your guard instantly. If further he be joined, apparently by chance, by a friend or two and propose to adjourn for a drink or a meal, and then talk of his prospects and the money he has, and ask you to lend him, for a short while, your purse, or an article of value, merely to show your confidence in him - he having already shown his confidence in them by handing some article to his confederates - be sure you are in the company of "confidence trick" rogues and leave them at once. If you happen on a policeman near by, describe the men to him and tell him where you left them. The information may be useful to him. Avoid all talk with undesirable or promiscuous folk whose appearance and manner you do not care for on acquaintance.
[Londoners will apparently only talk to you in order to rob you, while non-Londoners are incredibly gullible; more surprising to the modern reader is the idea that you might expect to happen on a policeman.]

6. As to tips, at many establishments where only a light repast is served "no gratuities" is the rule. Otherwise the custom is to tip the waiter on the scale of 1d for every shilling of your bill. Thus if your dinner cost 2s. 6d., the waiter's tip would be 2d. or 3d., whichever you please.
[And how do you solve the twopence/threepence dilemma? After so many precise instructions, 'Enquire' has suddenly left us high and dry!]

7. For a short stay it will answer your convenience and save time to put up at a comfortable central hotel rather than lodge in a suburb.
[But if you couldn't work that out for yourself, you're probably still pondering the twopence/threepence quandary.]

8. Arrange your programme so as to leave the evenings free for the theatre, or music hall, or concert, or the fireworks at the Crystal Palace.
[Assuming you are not just too tired and penniless having sprinted from one end of London to the other, handed your wallet to a new 'friend' for no obvious reason, offended the waiter with your mean tip and then had to travel back to your hotel in the outer suburbs...]

Related post: London sightseeing, when did it get so slow?

Friday 3 October 2008

Peter the Great in Deptford (3): the statue

Peter the Great's visit to Deptford was apparently once commemorated by a bust in Deptford West Power Station. However, that had disappeared when a chance enquiry about its whereabouts was made on behalf of Edwin Holdup, former power station manager, to Canon Graham Corneck, the Rural Dean of Deptford. Although Canon Corneck didn't find the bust, he was inspired to campaign for a public memorial. He received support from Vladimir Molchanov, First Secretary at the Russian Embassy, and Lewisham and Greenwich councils.

The Peter the Great Tercentenary Committee was formed, and it originally intended to run an open competition. However, the monument actually erected is a gift from the people of Russia. It was designed by two Russian sculptors, Viacheslav Bukhaev who was responsible for the architectural elements and Mikhail Chemiakin, (or Shemyakin) responsible for the sculptural elements.

Chemiakin had gone into exile from Russia in 1971 after his art was condemned by the Soviet authorities. He settled in New York, but his work has been exhibited in Russia since the Soviet Union broke up, and he and Bukhaev had already created a Peter the Great monument for St Petersburg. His original plan for the Deptford sculpture supposedly involved court jesters baring their bottoms, but the actual monument has restricted itself to one dwarf jester holding a ship and globe, while Peter carries a telescope.

The statue was unveiled by Prince Michael of Kent in June 2001 on land given by Fairview Homes. However, it was not the Committee's only achievement. They also formed the Peter the Great Educational Trust, whose educational aims included developing cultural and academic links between Russia and Great Britain.

For more detailed information on this and many, many other South London monuments, Public Sculpture of South London by Terry Cavanagh is an invaluable reference book.

For all Peter the Great posts, click here

Thursday 2 October 2008

An apt anniversary: the collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank

The current economic crisis gives added interest to today's anniversary: exactly 130 years ago was the collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank. However, unlike the more recent bank failures, this one brought about the ruin of almost all its shareholders and saw its directors imprisoned for fraud.

The bank had been founded in 1839 and by the time of its collapse, had 133 branches. Dividends to shareholders had been generous, reaching 12% in June 1878. It even issued its own bank notes. It was therefore one of Scotland's largest banks, and appeared to be a great success.

However, on 2 October that year the directors announced the bank's closure. Despite the £8 million in deposits they had declared a few months earlier, the overall picture was much bleaker: those deposits were far outweighed by the bank's liabilities. Indeed the real story was one of poorly secured loans (sound familiar?), lots of risky investments made in the hope of putting things right, and £6 million of liabilities. (The bank's liquidators actually recovered more money than they might have expected for some of its US investments, thanks to the efforts of American banker John Stewart Kennedy). It had kept going by a mixture of fraudulent balance sheets and secret purchases of the bank's own stock to keep up the share price.

Unlike modern businesses, the City of Glasgow Bank was not a limited company - in other words, the liability of its shareholders was not limited to a certain amount by law. Consequently, the 1,600 or so shareholders were liable for an unlimited amount, so when the Bank's debts had to be repaid every shareholder had to pay their full share. Almost all of them went bankrupt, with unhappy effects on Glasgow's economy. In January 1879, the bank's directors were all convicted of fraud and sentenced to imprisonment.

As a result of the collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank, changes were made to the banking system. Independent auditing became a requirement, while limited liability was introduced - effectively shifting the risk from the shareholders to the depositors. However, more fundamental lessons seem not to have been learned yet.