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.

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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.

Sunday 23 November 2008

Postman's Park (10): Samuel Rabbeth

Samuel Rabbeth's story is not dissimilar to that of William Freer Lucas, highlighting the potential dangers faced by nineteenth-century doctors. The 27-year-old was senior residential medical officer at the Royal Free Hospital (then at Gray's Inn Road). He was treating a four-year-old for diphtheria, and again the method of treatment was a tracheotomy. However, it was unsuccessful because a membrane continued to obstruct the boy's breathing. Rabbeth therefore knowingly risked his own life in an attempt to save the child's by sucking away the membrane through a tube. Tragically, both he and the boy died of the disease.

Thanks to vaccination against diphtheria, contemporary Britons have largely forgotten the dangers the disease held. However, the Victorians were very aware of its risks: famously, Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Alice died of it after being infected while nursing her children. It affects the upper respiratory tract, causing sore throat, difficulty swallowing, fever, and an adherent membrane in the throat - that membrane which Rabbeth was trying to remove. This could cause the victims to suffocate, and tracheotomy was the first effective treatment developed for the disease. Subsequently, an antitoxin was developed in the 1890s, and a vaccine in 1913.

Rabbeth's memorial plaque states:


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Friday 21 November 2008

Paris: quarries and catacombs (1)

Among Paris's more unusual attractions is the walk through several kilometres of quarries and catacombs starting opposite the Denfert-Rochereau metro station. However, it represents only a tiny fraction of the huge network of tunnels running under Paris, which first helped build the city and then nearly undermined it altogether.

Quarrying for stone under the city began in the 13th century, when Paris was the site of major building projects including palaces, churches and houses. The quarries, in what were then the outskirts of the city, were underground in order to avoid damaging fertile farmland. The exploitation of Paris's depths would continue over the following centuries; while stone was quarried in the Left Bank areas, Montmartre was a source of gypsum (which gave plaster of paris its distinctive whiteness).

By the late eighteenth century, the honeycomb of tunnels was a real danger to the city above. Collapses occurred from time to time: roads and buildings would disappear into holes in the ground. Thus in 1777, a General Inspectorate of Quarries was appointed to supervise and consolidate the underground works. New quarries were banned, and exploitation of existing ones phased out. Shoring-up of the voids left behind was also a priority.

One of the most successful new uses for the abandoned quarries was as a location for Paris's mushroom-growing industry. By the early nineteenth century, the underground mushroom farms were producing 25 tons per day. However, production and demand continued to grow and, too constrained by the quarry tunnels, the industry moved to the outskirts in the latter part of the century. Nonetheless, to this day the button mushroom is known in French as the 'champignon de Paris'.

Meanwhile, as Paris grew its cemeteries became more and more overcrowded. With so much empty space under the city, and cemeteries threatening the population's health as they burst their bounds above-ground, a solution soon occurred to the authorities...

Thursday 20 November 2008

Deptford's building inspires

The Laban Centre tops the list in today's Telegraph of 'the 50 most inspiring buildings in Britain'. It is described as 'more assured work' by Herzog and De Meuren than Tate Modern; its 'translucent skin strikes a knowing relationship to the industrial sheds ... The interior ... is of such spatial variety that it brings to mind a city in miniature'. That's the good news.

The bad news is that they couldn't resist the tired old characterisation of Deptford as a 'down-at-heel corner of the capital'.

Image by Celie on flickr, under a Creative Commons licence.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Postman's Park (9): William Freer Lucas

According to his obituary in the British Medical Journal, William Freer Lucas was just 23 years old and acting resident medical officer at the Middlesex Hospital when he died. He had been a promising young man: successful at school, he went on to study medicine at the University of London before entering the Middlesex Hospital in 1888 where he continued to win scholarships and prizes. He was also an athlete and 'his gentlemanly bearing, uprightness, and candour gained for him many friends.'

However, Lucas's early promise was cut short by his death from diphtheria. While he was administering chloroform during a tracheotomy operation on a child with diphtheria, the patient coughed into his face. Four days later, he too had diphtheria which killed him within 10 days.

Lucas's memorial service and burial were well attended by his medical colleagues. The BMJ published a memorial poem written by 'one who was well acquainted with Mr Lucas'; since it is in Latin, I won't reproduce it here. His plaque on the Watts Memorial states:


For all Postman's Park posts, click here.


I do love golden age detective fiction - and this pastiche has a serious purpose too:

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Lost: one flea-bitten horse

This newspaper advertisement from July 1703 tells us a lot about the value of horses, the rural nature of Deptford at the time, and even the criminal justice system. Since the theft of the horse pre-dated the establishment of the modern police force, responsibility for investigating the crime basically fell upon Thomas Barrs himself. Although the practice was frowned upon officially, many victims of such thefts would retrieve their goods by paying the thieves for their return. To keep on the right side of the law, Barrs has suggested that the horse may have strayed and is offering a reward to the finder rather than a ransom.

However, what I find really appealing about the advert is the honesty of Barrs' description of his horse!

Stolen (or Strayed) on the 1st of this instant July out of the Grounds of Mr Thomas Barrs at Deptford in Kent, a Nutmeg Grey Gelding, full Aged, about 14 hands and a half high, a bold Countenance, something Flea Bitten about the Neck, a whisk Tayl, a hurt on his oft Leg behind, in the Fetlock Joynt, all his paces. If discovered (so as to be had again) to Mr Tho Barrs aforesaid, or to Mr Thompsons Livery Stables at the black Horse in Hounds-Ditch, shall have a Guinea Reward and charges.

Monday 17 November 2008

Paris's shopping passages

Many of us are familiar with shopping arcades running between major streets, such as the Burlington Arcade off Piccadilly built in 1819. It inspired similar arcades in other cities: in 1847, for example, the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert were opened in Brussels.

From the end of the eighteenth century, there was also an explosion in the number of such arcades in Paris, where they are known as passages. The name alludes to their dual purpose: they offered themselves as quiet short-cuts between the dirty, overcrowded, traffic-filled streets, but once the pedestrian entered they did everything they could to keep her there. Their glass roofs made them light and attractive, while gaslight kept them bright at night in an era without efficient streetlighting; the surroundings were often elegant. Public toilets were a crucial innovation first found in the Galeries de Bois at the end of the eighteenth century. As well as shops, there were cafes, restaurants and even entertainments: concerts were held, many passages housed theatre entrances, and the Musée Grévin was located on the Passage Jouffroy and still has its exit there.

Built in 1847, the Passage Jouffroy lies between two others, the Panoramas and Verdeau - together they formed the largest covered walkway in Paris. While the earliest passages had been built in wood, the Jouffroy was the first entirely of steel and glass. It was also the first to have under-floor heating. To fit into the awkward space available, it is dog-legged, with a short flight of steps linking the two sections. This difficult location also gave rise to another interesting feature, the unusual shop shown here:

Looks like an ordinary second-hand bookshop? Well, in fact the whole of the shopfront in the photo is fake. Because of the constraints of space, the facade is in reality nothing more than a row of shelves with windows in front. The shop does have a modest interior at one end, but is nothing like the huge emporium the storefront suggests.

In their heyday, there were over 500 of these passages in Paris. However, once Haussmann remodelled the city with brighter, wider, safer boulevards, the passages began to seem dingy and dubious by comparison while their small shops were overshadowed by the new department stores. Many disappeared altogether during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, those passages which survived are popular once more and are home to a number of small, interesting shops.

Related post: Musée Grévin.

Sunday 16 November 2008

Postman's Park (8): George Stephen Funnell

George Funnell, a 33-year-old ex-soldier turned police constable, was on his beat in Hackney when he noticed a fire in the Elephant and Castle pub on Wick Road. After raising the alarm, he rushed into the burning building: the landlady and two barmaids were still inside. First he brought out the landlady, then one of the barmaids. Now burnt himself, he nonetheless went back in for the third woman.

PC Funnell reached the woman, and directed her to a back door. However, he himself was overcome by the heat and smoke. The woman escaped into the street, but by the time rescuers reached Funnell he was unconscious and burned on the face, neck and arms. Eleven days later, on 2 January 1900, he died of his injuries.

The inquest jury commended Funnell and his colleagues for gallant behaviour. The Society for the Protection of Life from Fire gave awards to those colleagues; during the ceremony, Mr G B Fordham commented that "he died the death of a thoroughly brave and sincere man" giving his life for three women who were strangers to him. Funnell's funeral was attended by several hundred police officers and firemen, as well as local people. A memorial committee was set up to support his wife and two children. His memorial plaque reads:


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Friday 14 November 2008

Paris: the Musée Grevin

Although guidebooks tend to bill this museum as Paris’s equivalent of Madame Tussaud’s, the similarity doesn’t go much beyond the fact that both have waxworks and were established by French people (Mme Tussaud famously came to London to escape the French Revolution). First, the Musée Grévin is a much younger business, founded in 1882. Second, it has retained much of its turn-of-the-century atmosphere, not least in the marvellous Palais des Mirages. Finally, the selection of famous figures to be modelled is perhaps rather different, with lots of literary and intellectual figures.

Happily, on my visit at least, the Grévin didn’t have the ridiculously long queues its London cousin usually does. I was soon through the doors and into the impressive entrance with its grand staircase and ornate mirrors. Upstairs, visitors are ushered into a small, apparently circular and very dark room. Soon, there is an announcement and the show begins. As lights appear, it becomes apparent that the room is actually hexagonal and mirrored; clever use of lights and a few models turn the space into a forest and a vast palace. What is even more impressive is that this attraction is Edwardian, created for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 (although the actual show content is updated from time to time). You can see how it’s done, there is only a small amount of technology (electric lighting, sound and a few moving parts), and yet the effect is utterly magical. Everyone was impressed, right up until the loud voice telling everyone to move along broke the spell!

The Grévin’s theatre has hosted stars including Charlie Chaplin, Mistinguett, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Marcel Marceau and Josephine Baker. All have left souvenirs which are on display, while the theatre itself now has an audience of waxworks. The rest of the museum has waxwork-populated scenes including Bernard-Henri Levy, Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway hanging out in a bar; Auguste Rodin in his studio sculpting Pablo Picasso; a bistro where chef Bernard Loiseau pours champagne for Marguerite Yourcenar while Jean-Paul Gaultier chats with Maria Callas; and a wonderful and non-chronological selection of historical tableaux including Enlightenment greats sharing conversation, Henri IV being assassinated by Francois Ravaillac, and Marie Antoinette on trial in the shadow of the guillotine. Contemporary personalities also appear – from Nicolas Sarkozy to Zinadine Zidane – very much in the original spirit of the museum, which was founded by journalist Arthur Meyer to show the newsworthy figures of the day in three dimensions. (The sculptor and caricaturist Alfred Grévin brought the idea to life and gave his name to the museum). Through all of this, magicians wander around doing impressive card tricks.

The Musée Grévin works on two levels. It’s obviously an entertaining place to stroll through enjoying the waxworks and having your photo taken with (effigies of) famous people. However, its baroque interiors, the original attractions and the atmosphere also give a sense of what these attractions felt like a century ago. As you exit into the nineteenth-century shopping arcade Passage Jouffroy, past and present seem to have mingled for a little while.

Related post: shopping passages.

Thursday 13 November 2008

Calling the intemperate working classes

In 1837, the working classes of Deptford were invited to a meeting by one of the leading temperance organisations (and the first based in London). At this time, the British temperance movement was in its early days - Joseph Livesey had started it in Preston just five years before - but it spread quickly. Initially, its message was one of avoiding spirits (but still drinking beer). The dangers of gin had long been recognised: Hogarth's famous Gin Lane was published in 1751, contrasting the evil effects of the spirit with the healthful nature of beer. Soon, however, the temperance movement turned to advocacy of complete teetotalism, identifying all drink as a source of crime, poverty and ill-health. The movement would remain strong throughout the nineteenth century, with thousands 'taking the pledge'; by the end of the century, feminists were increasingly important in the movement, their concern centred upon the connection between drunkenness and domestic violence.


On Thursday Feb. 2, 1837

Chair to be taken at half-past Six o’Clock, punctually.

The Working Classes are particularly requested to attend, as they will hear much in which they are deeply interested, and calculated to promote their Happiness and Prosperity

Wednesday 12 November 2008

La Conciergerie: mediaeval marvel

The Conciergerie, on Paris's Ile de la Cité, became notorious as a revolutionary prison: Marie Antoinette and Robespierre were both held here before their executions. However, the building's history goes back far further and while the upper levels are dedicated to this prison history, the ground floor is an impressive piece of mediaeval architecture.

In fact, the ground floor is now some way below modern street level, so you enter by descending a staircase, and the windows are blocked giving it something of a cathedral crypt ambience. It is all that remains of the palace which originally occupied the site. Charles V left this palace for the Louvre after a popular invasion in 1358 which had seen his father's advisors killed, and created the post of Concierge to administer the building and its prison. By the following century it had become one of Paris's largest prisons.

The salle des gens d'armes dates from 1302, and was restored in the nineteenth century. It is the largest secular mediaeval room surviving in Europe, 64 metres long. To warm such a large space, each of the four walls had its own fireplace. Since the palace employed several thousand staff, the generously-sized space was very much needed! Staircases led up to the Great Hall, which burned down in 1618. However, its antechamber, the Salle des Gardes, still survives and features some fascinating column capitals:

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Postman's Park (7): Alfred Smith

Police Constable Alfred Smith was killed during an air raid while evacuating a street in Finsbury and ensuring that women from a factory took cover. The date may be a little surprising, though: 13 June 1917. While air raids over London are associated with the Second World War, there had been some during the 1914-18 war too, mainly carried out by Zeppelins.

The first raid on London took place on 31 May 1915 in the East End, killing six people. Defences were soon improved and blackout regulations put in place. Losses of Zeppelins were heavy. However, 1917 saw a new form of attacker: squadrons of Gotha aeroplanes. Casualties were much higher than those for Zeppelin raids; London's first and worst was that which killed PC Smith. He was one of 162 dead, with many more wounded. The attack had taken place in broad daylight, when streets and buildings were busy - among the casualties were 16 children killed by a direct hit on their school. Only one of the squadron of 22 aeroplanes which made the attack was brought down.

The air raid of 13 June was to have two unintended effects. First was the strengthening of the RAF, which led to heavy losses of Gothas and the end of daytime bombing. The second unexpected consequence was that rather than destroying morale, the attacks on civilians increased popular hostility to the Germans. Overall, the effect of air raids on Britain in World War One was of limited military significance - a fact which perhaps makes the loss of life even more poignant.


For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Monday 10 November 2008

More film of Edwardian London

If you enjoyed seeing London in 1904 on film, here's another extract from the previous year. It proves that rush hour congestion is more than a century old, even if it used to involve horses rather than engines. However, look at the speed some of the vehicles manage - it's easy to believe that the average traffic speed has declined over the years!

Also online from the BFI are other fascinating glimpses of old London including Blackfriars Bridge in 1896; colour film of Kensington Gardens, London Bridge and the Thames in 1926; and a suffragette demonstration of 1913. Amazing stuff.

Sunday 9 November 2008

Postman's Park (6): the Silvertown explosion

On 19 January 1917 at 6.52pm, the Brunner Mond munitions factory explosion claimed the lives of 73 people in Silvertown, east London - the youngest only 4 months old.

During World War I, the former soda crystal factory was turned over to producing TNT explosive, despite being in a densely-populated area. Brunner Mond opposed this use of the factory: according to their head chemist, Dr F A Freeth, 'At the end of every month we used to write to Silvertown to say that their plant would go up sooner or later, and we were told that it was worth the risk to get the TNT.'

When a fire broke out in the melting pot room on 19 January, 50 tons of explosive ignited, destroying the factory and surrounding buildings. The explosion was heard 100 miles away, and burning debris was thrown for miles, starting further fires: a gasholder on Greenwich Peninsula was ignited and threw a huge fireball into the air. Hundreds of people were injured and thousands were left homeless. The exact cause of the fire is not known, but it was probably due to inadequate safety standards. A government report produced after the disaster (but not released until the 1950s) referred to TNT in torn bags and packages with missing stoppers; production and storage were in the same building.

Tragically, a second, much larger (and safer) TNT factory had already been opened; its higher production made the Silvertown factory unnecessary. Nonetheless, the government insisted on keeping it open, with disastrous consequences. The site of the destroyed factory has not been built upon to this day: it is now a car park.

Among the dead was Dr Andreas Angel, an Oxford professor doing voluntary war work as the plant's chief chemist; he was attempting to help put out the fire. Station Officer S Betts and Fireman Yabsley were killed as they prepared their hoses to tackle the blaze, despite knowing the risk of explosion. The Watts Memorial commemorates a further casualty, PC Edward Greenoff, who helped to evacuate the factory. Aware of the imminent danger, he nonetheless remained outside to warn passers-by of the risk of an explosion. When that explosion did take place, the head injuries he suffered proved fatal; he died nine days later, aged 30. He was posthumously awarded the King's Police Medal. At the time of his death, PC Greenoff had an eight-year-old son, Edward, who would later become a police officer himself.

In the words of the Watts Memorial,


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Friday 7 November 2008

Dean Stanhope's School rules

Addey & Stanhope School, still on New Cross Road in Deptford, was formed by the amalgamation of John Addey's charity with Dean Stanhope's School in the late nineteenth century. Both charities had long performed a vital role in the education of poorer children of the town: Dean Stanhope's School was founded about 1715 and by 1837 was clothing and educating 50 boys and 30 girls. Its aim was to see the boys apprenticed and the girls instructed in 'useful needlework and domestic duties' (fitting them for work as maidservants and for marriage).

However, the recipients of the school's charity had their own obligations. These were set out in the published rules for parents and children; this version is from 1814.

January 1, 1814

Rules for the Guidance of Parents, Relations, & Friends.

They are to send their children regularly to School, clean, washed and combed, a quarter before nine in the morning, and a quarter before two in the afternoon, precisely.

On Sundays, they are to send them before they proceed to Church, a quarter before ten in the morning, and a quarter before two in the afternoon, precisely.

They are not to detain them from School, or Church, except from sickness, or with leave. – In case of sickness, immediate information must be given.

They are not to take their children from the School without one month’s previous notice. The cloaths, &c. are to be immediately returned on the removal or dismissal of any child: security to that effect must be given by parents, relations, or friends.

They are not to interfere with the discipline of the school.

Parents, relations, and friends, are expected to instill into their children the principles of gratitude, obedience, and submission.

N.B. No child having an unseemly appearance, a cutaneous eruption, or infectious disorder, will be admitted into the School.

Rules to be observed by the Children.

They must go directly to and from the School in an orderly manner.

They must take the greatest care of their cloaths, caps, books, &c. and never appear in the Streets dirty or ragged.

They must pay every proper and due respect to their Benefactors, Elders, and Superiors, whether passing them, or meeting them in the Streets.

They are never allowed to appear in the Streets but in the uniform dress allowed them by the Trustees.

The Boys are to be on the Muster Ground, precisely at the times appointed, otherwise they will lose their call.

Children are not to take God’s Name in Vain; to swear, to lie, to steal, to cheat, to play truant, or to throw stones. For misbehavior at Church, they will invariably be punished.


Image: Dean Stanhope's School c1840, from ideal homes: suburbia in focus.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Pub names and the Marquis of Granby

Reading local history documents, it's striking how much a part of life public houses were. Not only were they places to buy the beer that was often safer than water, and socialise with friends; they were also meeting places for all sorts of associations and all classes. Thus in the 1830s the Deptford Coal Institution, a charity to supply coal to the needy, first met in the Dover Castle Inn on Deptford Broadway, while the committee of the Deptford Benevolent Institution for Educating Youth preferred the Swan Inn on the High Street. (Unsurprisingly, an exception to the rule was the British & Foreign Temperance Society, which preferred the non-alcoholic surroundings of the Friends' Meeting House).

Our pubs also hold history in another way: their names. Since I often get off the bus at the Marquis of Granby stop on New Cross Road, that was an obvious one to look into a little further. It's a popular name, shared by pubs in Fitzrovia, Covent Garden, Esher, Nottingham and Newcastle Upon Tyne among others. There's a good reason why certain men's names are remembered in this way: when soldiers (usually non-commissioned officers) left the army, they were sometimes given public houses by commanding officers to provide them with an occupation and income. As a mark of gratitude, they might name the establishment after their benefactors. So who was the Marquis of Granby and what were his military connections?

John Manners, Marquess of Granby, was an eighteenth-century army general. Given his own fondness for drinking and gambling, he would probably have been happy to know his name would survive in this way! Son of the Duke of Rutland, he was educated at Eton and Cambridge and also had a political career. In 1745 he became a colonel; his military career took off during the Seven Years War. In 1758, the King made him Colonel of the Royal Horse Guards and in 1766, he became Commander-in-Chief (a basically political appointment). However, his poor administrative skills and allegedly overly-lenient discipline brought criticism. The public, though, admired his concern about his men's welfare - as evidenced by the number of pubs which owed their purchase to him and bore his name. Sadly, when he resigned from politics in January 1770 he found himself in financial difficulties until his death later that year.

Given the survival of these public house names through the centuries, and the historical clues they contain, it's a pity to see so many pubs falling victim to the 'All Bar Rat and Firkin' syndrome. (A happy exception is J D Wetherspoon, who do make the effort to reference local history in their pub names). It's time for more creativity, our descendants may thank us for it!

Image: Allan Ramsay's official portrait of the Marquess of Granby, from Wikipedia.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Postman's Park (5): Alexander Stewart Brown

Most of the events commemorated in the Watts Memorial involve working-class people living in poorer areas. Their deaths are often a result of dangerous work or impoverished living conditions: house fires, suffocation by sewer gas, drowning in London's rivers. However, Dr Alexander Stewart Brown FRCS was moving in a very different milieu when he proved his bravery.

The doctor was well-known locally, not least as the chairman of the Brockley Conservative Association. He was also a Freemason. He lived comfortably in Brockley, keeping a pony and trap (and probably other vehicles as well). In the autumn of 1900, he took a holiday to Boulogne.

Today we know Boulogne primarily as a cross-Channel ferry port, but for the Victorians it was a fashionable bathing resort offering those two essentials, hydrotherapy and a casino. When Dr Stewart Brown chose to visit, then, he was joining other middle-class people at play. The hydrotherapy facilities may have had a particular appeal for him as he was convalescing from a carriage accident several weeks earlier in which his spine had been injured. He probably travelled by South Eastern Railways' service: first the train from London to Folkestone, then the ferry to Boulogne.

Unfortunately, the doctor's holiday would end in tragedy. He was walking on the pier when he realised that a man had fallen into the sea. Without even pausing to remove clothing, Dr Stewart Brown jumped in to rescue him. He then spent a further two hours reviving him. The epic effort was successful, and the man survived. The doctor would not be so lucky: thanks to all that time in wet clothes, he caught a severe cold which turned into pneumonia. Back at his home, Holly Lodge in Brockley Road, he passed quietly away aged 45.

The funeral was well-attended by 'a large and sympathetic gathering'. His body was carried in a Washington car (a glass hearse) pulled by four horses; behind followed his favourite horse and trap. At the end of the ceremony, the Freemasons present threw acacia sprigs into the grave (in freemasonry, these represent immortality of the soul). An apt text was chosen for the sermon: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.' Against such a backdrop, the wording of his plaque on the Watts Memorial appears restrained:


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Tuesday 4 November 2008

Assyrian animals

Wander around the ground floor of the British Museum, and the Parthenon marbles and the Egyptian galleries tend to be unbearably full of tourists. However, the Assyrian galleries right alongside are much calmer, and have some amazing stone reliefs. The subject-matter is rather heavy on war and hunting, but the skill and details are impressive.

Assyria was centred on northern Iraq, although at times its territories included much of the Middle East. Its kings built palaces in Nimrud and Nineveh, decorated with these reliefs depicting their achievements. Rather than bloodthirsty deaths, though, I thought I'd share some of the images of animals to be found in the galleries.

Monday 3 November 2008

Charity in Deptford

Deptford had a number of charities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which all worked in a similar way: they were funded by subscribers who, in return for their annual fee, became governors. Thus those who couldn't afford a grand gesture like establishing their own almshouses could nonetheless engage in charitable activity. Why, though, did they want to do so?

Helpfully, there are surviving copies of An Account of the Kent Dispensary, published in 1785 and reprinted in 1799. The eighteenth-century equivalent of a fundraising brochure, it allows us to infer some of the reasons why local ladies and gentlemen might subscribe:
  1. There was a real need for these charitable services (this was before the days of the NHS, free state education, etc).
  2. Giving the poor services, under stringent conditions, was seen as more effective than giving them money. After all, they couldn't be trusted to spend it properly: 'many apply the allowance to other purposes; and much the larger part fall a sacrifice to ignorant venders of medicines'.
  3. The deserving poor who wanted to get on and work should be assisted to do so: 'To relieve and protect the toiling hand of industry at all times, and more especially when oppressed with sickness, has ever been a principle object in all well-regulated societies'.
  4. Only the deserving poor would be assisted by a well-run charity. In the case of the Dispensary, 'who, amongst the poor, will seek medical advice without needing it, or take the preparations but from necessity.'
  5. There was a moral obligation on those benefitting from others' labour to help them when they needed assistance: 'Humanity revolts at neglecting those, from whose laborious exertions, every one in a superior situation, derives all, or the greatest part of his luxury and ease.'
  6. Keeping the poor working stopped them getting lazy: 'having felt the luxury of the [poor relief] allowance, in too many of them, the heart is compleatly altered, a general relaxation from labour ensues, and inrolled in the number of the indigent, they remain the rest of their lives a part of the annual burthen of their neighbours.'
  7. Being charitable made benefactors feel good: 'what an extensive enjoyment here presents itself, how small the subscription appears, when compared with what each benevolent subscriber has daily in his power to procure for his poor afflicted neighbours?'
  8. Donors got social status from the donation: the list of subscribers was published, each subscripton made the subscriber a governor of the charity, and they were in the company of luminaries such as Lord Romney, Earl Stanhope and John Julius Angerstein.
  9. Subscribers were able to offer patronage, since access to the charity tended to depend upon nomination by a governor.
  10. Alarmingly, the poor seem to have been seen as a sort of testing-ground for dubious drugs: 'Where, but at these public charities, can medicine have so fair a trial, and its merits be substantially enquired into.'

Sunday 2 November 2008

Postman's Park (4): tragedy in a sewer

Walter Digby was employed by East Ham District Council as a sewage worker. One of his daily jobs was to descend the sewer shaft in the pumping-station yard and clean the sewer screen. On Monday 1 July 1895, he climbed down the ladder as usual – but something went horribly wrong. He fell into the water and didn’t re-emerge.

Thus started a chain of events which would result in five deaths. First, Digby’s colleague Arthur Rutter, who had seen him fall, climbed down to rescue him. However, he too disappeared into the water. Meanwhile, another colleague went to fetch help; he brought back the engineer in charge of the works, Mr F Mills. Mills too descended to see what had happened; he too was overcome and sank into the water. Robert Durrant was next to attempt a rescue, but also went into the water. Finally, Frederick Jones followed; he was overcome but did not actually sink into the sewer water.

The police now arrived, under the command of Sergeant Brain. Pumps were switched on to reduce the water levels, and a bucket of burning coal was lowered into the sewer to test the air (uselessly, as it turned out). A local watchman, Herbert Worman, now volunteered to make a further rescue attempt and was lowered down with a rope around him. He attached another rope to Jones, who was lifted unconscious from the sewer.

Eventually, the other men’s bodies were removed; having been in the water three or four hours, all were dead. Meanwhile, the unconscious Jones was taken to hospital and artificial respiration attempted for two and a half hours. He remained unconscious but breathing, and was given brandy-and-ether injections every fifteen minutes. Finally he was given oxygen, but died in the early hours of the next morning.

These events and the enquiries which followed were fully reported in the local newspaper, The Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser. The inquest on the four men who died at the scene reached a verdict of accidental death after hearing evidence that the deceased had drowned. However, the cause of the calamity was still something of a mystery. It was only solved at the second inquest, for Jones, where evidence from Dr Haldane, a leading expert on poisonous gases from Oxford University, was read out. He concluded that the cause of the incident was ‘sulphuretted hydrogen’ (hydrogen sulphide) in the sewage water, which poisoned the air sufficiently to overcome the men. The presence of the gas wouldn’t have prevented the coal from continuing to burn. Once again, the verdict was accidental death. However, the jury had harsh words for the Council about the lack of safety precautions in place, which they described as “great negligence”. Meanwhile, a Relief Fund for the widows and orphans of the five deceased had collected over £776 by early August.

The mystery, the lack of health and safety precautions, and the generous public response are not mentioned on the Watts Memorial. However, the bare fact of the bravery shown by the four men who died attempting to rescue their colleagues is clearly expressed:


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