Thursday 31 December 2009

Deptford's silent new year (2)

The silent bells of St Nicholas, Deptford did not go unnoticed by its parishioners. In less than a fortnight, a meeting had been convened; even in the summary of resolutions, its lively nature is apparent.
At a Meeting of the Parishioners of the Parish of St. Nicholas, Deptford, in the County of Kent, in Vestry, in the Vestry Room of the said Parish, on Thursday, the 12th day of January, 1837, held pursuant to Public Notice given in church, on Sunday last:---

RESOLVED --- That the Vestry having duly considered all the circumstances attending the prevention of the Bells being permitted to Ring upon some recent occasions, by the Church Warden, Mr. GODWIN, --- do not conceive there was an adequate ground to warrant such interference.

RESOLVED --- That it is the Opinion of this Vestry, that the Church Warden, Mr. GODWIN, having of his own authority and responsibility caused to be carried away the Bell Ropes to his own House, so as to preclude the adopting of the Ancient Custom of Ringing in and out the Old and New Year, was highly injudicious and dissatisfactory to this Parish, and that it is the opinion of this Vestry, that such a procedure should not be made a precedent upon any future occasion.

RESOLVED --- That the Resolutions upon this subject be printed and circulated throughout the Parish.

RESOLVED --- That a Copy of these Resolutions be sent to Mr. GODWIN, by the Vestry Clerks.

RESOLVED --- That the Thanks of this Vestry be and they are hereby given to Mr. GODFREY HILL, the Church Warden and CHAIRMAN of this Meeting, for his spirited and judicious conduct upon this subject, and his impartiality in the Chair.

Wednesday 30 December 2009

Deptford's silent new year (1)

On New Year's Eve, 1836, church bells sounded across London to ring in the new year. There was one patch of silence, though - the parish of St Nicholas, Deptford. Mr Godwin the churchwarden had taken the bell ropes and locked them away in his own house.

The bells themselves were apparently moved to write a petition against their harsh treatment:

to the Worthy and Respectable Inhabitants of the said Parish.
Most Humbly sheweth,

That your Petitioners emboldened by the long course of reciprocal services, which has for Centuries existed between you and themselves, presume to lay before you their Grievances and solicit your kind interference in their behalf, of our Faithful attachment to your Interests, and Sympathy with your feelings, you will not doubt, we have Mourned when you have Mourned, and Rejoiced when you Rejoiced, which of you can forget that blissful period of life, when at the Altar below us you obtained possession of all you held dear, did we not on that occasion pour forth our Melodious Strains upon the surrounding Air, and inspire all Hearts with Happiness and Joy; when the rude hand of Death has snatched from you some much-loved Relative or Friend, can you forget the thrilling sensations you experienced as each slow and solemn expression of our Sympathy fell upon your ear, - how oft has been the time when British Valour and Intrepidity has humbled the proud Foes of our Country, have we mingled in your rejoicings, and announced in Loud and Harmonious Strains the feelings of Joy and Gratitude with which you hailed the Brave defenders of the British Isle; - to you then we look with confidence to pity and redress our Grievances, condemned by the inflated assumption of Parochial dignity, armed with a little brief Authority, we are doomed at this period of annual rejoicing to a base and inglorious silence, what, we ask, must have been your own feelings when the last stroke of the Midnight hour announced the expiring period of 1836, and ushered into life the dawn of 1837, when our harmonious brethren in the adjoining Parishes threw forth their merry and enlivening Peals to the passing Gale, and not one note from your old and venerable servants hoarse with the rust of Ages, broke upon the silence of the night alas, our ruthless oppressor has deprived us of our very Ropes, save, Oh save we implore you those graceful appendages which formed the line of communication between us and our Harmonic Friends, the Trinity Youths save them from the Degrading contamination of falling into the hands of any DEALER IN OLD JUNK, rescue us we beseech you from our present state of inglorious inaction, and once more we will enliven your Fire-sides with our merry peals;

In Grateful strains our voice we’ll raise

And sound to our Deliverers’ Praise,

Nay we will do more, as the period is fast approaching when your Oppressor must sink into his original sphere and his brief Authority expire, we pledge ourselves for your gratification on that occasion to perform a Solemn Requium [sic] in Memory of departed Greatness, - Grant worthy Parishioners, our request.

And your Petitioners will ever Pray.

Given from our

Soundless, Ropeless,
Silent Tower of
St. Nicholas,

2nd January, 1837. (PRICE 1d.)
Their plea, albeit written in a single sentence, soon received a response...

Tuesday 29 December 2009

The Antigallican

Here in Brittany there's plenty of evidence of mutual affection between Britain and France. However, the relationship isn't uniformly happy; in the past, it was often downright hostile.

Of course, being at war with France didn't help - the Seven Years' War of 1756-1763 and the Napoleonic Wars of 1799-1805 marked low points in Anglo-French relations, and the distrust between these neighbours persisted through much of the nineteenth century.

The Antigallican (anti-French) movement has earlier origins, though. It began in opposition to a cultural invasion of Britain by French goods and fashions. Thus the Anti-Gallican Society was founded around 1745, meeting in London's taverns (but not drinking claret!). Among its activities to stem the influx of French goods were prizes for local products. On its crest, St George was prominent - although his 'dragon' was a French flag.

In 1779, a privateer ship named the Antigallican sailed from Newcastle - and even had a song celebrating it. To the disappointment of its crew and investors, it returned after six months without having secured any prizes.

After the Napoleonic Wars, the whole Antigallican thing gradually went out of fashion and many of the wave of Antigallican pubs, inns and taverns quietly changed their name to something more in tune with the times. The name persisted on Tooley Street until a few years ago, but the pub facade (now nameless) has been incorporated into a modern building. One of the few survivors, though, still trades on the Woolwich Road at Charlton.

Monday 28 December 2009

Random statue 1: Auguste Pavie

There are some statues and memorials I've made a special effort to see (Bazalgette's, for example). There are others which are famous in their own right, such as Nelson's Column.

However, we all pass many more statues by chance, and often have little or no idea of whom they represent. This series is dedicated to those, and to finding a little more about their subjects. We're beginning with one I happened across on Christmas day in the Jardin des Anglais, Dinan.

Auguste Pavie was born in Dinan in 1847 (although he grew up in Guingamp before enlisting in the army at the age of 17) and was, as his statue says, an explorer who travelled extensively in Indochina. He had served for some years in Cambodia during his army service, during which he immersed himself in the local language and culture, and returned only intermittently to France during the rest of his career.

However, unlike many more maverick travellers, Pavie was also a diplomat and senior civil servant. He was an active colonialist, hardly surprising for one in his position in that place and time, although he did prefer the 'conquest of hearts' to the use of military might. Luang Prabang became a French protectorate after Pavie himself rescued the king from bandits who were sacking the small kingdom. Nonetheless, he was also involved in the Franco-Siamese War which saw the whole of Laos become a French protectorate and Pavie its governor.

In 1904, Pavie retired and returned to France. He died in 1925 in Thourie, Brittany.

Photograph of Pavie in 1890 from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday 27 December 2009

A country walk

One of my favourite parts of Christmas is the chance to go for a nice, long walk. With a halfway stop at a bar, of course.

Saturday 26 December 2009

This lintel in the Breton town of Dinan says 'made by Mre F Bonnier, chaplain of the 3 Marys, 1748'.

The chapel of the three Marys is in the nearby basilica of Saint Sauveur. Begun in the twelfth century, most of the building dates from the 15th and 16th centuries when it was enlarged. It's notable for containing the heart of French warrior Bertrand du Guesclin, Breton and French hero of the Hundred Years War against England.

Friday 25 December 2009

An Edwardian Christmas Carol

Enjoy the spirit of Christmas with this 1901 dramatisation of A Christmas Carol.
Wonder at the speed with which the story is told.
Marvel at the special effects
and try not to notice the dodgy ghost costume!

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday 23 December 2009

The Deptford gravedigger's widow

Before the welfare state, long-term illness and widowhood could bring disastrous financial consequences. The newspaper notice below sought help for a family well-known in the locality, although one wonders how the widow felt about having her financial situation so pitilessly exposed to the public. There was also perhaps another purpose behind this notice. The details about the widow's landlord suggest that at least part of the motivation of its authors was to shame him for his behaviour.

The kind and humane consideration of the Benevolent Inhabitants of Deptford is earnestly solicited in behalf of WIDOW BIGSBY and her 5 fatherless children in this the time of their bereavement and affliction.

It is well known, that the deceased MR. BIGSBY, for a long time was unable to attend to the duties of his situation in consequence of his affliction, during which time it could not of course be expected he could receive any more than a small pittance out of the Emolument arising from the office of Grave-Digger; which circumstance, combined with a variety of difficulties under which he laboured, has left his Widow and 5 fatherless children in the most pitiable condition imanginable; - and now added to which affliction, MR FLEAY, Linen Draper of the Broadway, her Landlord, has ordered a Distress to be levied on her few remaining Goods, for the sum of £4. 13s. 6d.; the half of which WIDOW BIGSBY has offered to pay, if the Distress should be withdrawn, but which has been refused by her Landlord.

The WIDOW BIGSBY therefore has no other resource than to throw herself and the condition of her 5 fatherless children on the humane and generous Public – entreating their kind assistance in this her time of trouble, and for which she trusts she shall ever prove herself to be sincerely grateful. Any Subscription, however small, will be most thankfully received.

Mr. T. B. KNOTT, High Street, Deptford, has very kindly offered to receive Subscriptions in WIDOW BIGSBY’S behalf; - Also Mr. T. R. PRESS, 1, Broomfield Place; and Mr. W. BURGESS, New Cross.

Jan. 20, 1841

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Weston Super Mare pier progress

When I revisited the Grand Pier on Sunday, the rebuilding appeared to be going well. Unfortunately, the weather was much too cold for a more considered photo so here's a quick snapshot.

The pier, badly damaged by fire in 2008, is due to reopen in the summer. It's great to see the structure taking shape - and you can follow progress on their website, blog, facebook page, or twitter feed!

Comparing the new structure to the old pier pictured below, you can already get a sense of how it's in the same spirit as its predecessor. However, it will offer some very 21st-century versions of traditional attractions, including fairground rides and a viewing tower.

Monday 21 December 2009

'Come and take choice of all my library'

W H Smith in Weston-Super-Mare has an extraordinary shopfront. Not at ground level, of course, where it's the standard chain-store signage. Look up, though, and there's a riot of ornate leadwork. Frustratingly, I've been unable to find out much about its history either online or in Pevsner, but the decorations themselves are full of information. (You'll probably need to click on the images to enlarge them, in order to make out details.)

The centrepiece is a quotation from Shakespeare:
Come and take choice of all my library
And so beguile thy sorrow
It's garnished with Tudoriana: hunting dogs, flourishes of vegetation, and a scattering of Tudor roses. Even more intriguing, though, are the panels below. Heraldic in theme, they include a bear, dragon, rather wicked-looking cherub, and a unicorn.

The bear features on the coat of arms of the city of Bath, and indeed the city's shield is also here. It's sat over the town's motto: Floreat Bathon. However, it really ought to have a pair of keys as well, although the Roman column is a nice flourish. We're perhaps not talking about pedantic levels of accuracy here!

The dragon doesn't have a convenient label. Although it's facing the bear, it isn't another representative of Bath (which prefers a lion). Rather, it's the symbol of the county of Somerset - and thus covers a much wider area than its companions. A common misconception is that the beast is actually a wyvern: they're popular locally, having been the symbol of the kingdom of Wessex. However, they also have only two legs - when Somerset County Council got its official coat of arms in 1911, the dragon was used instead.

The third panel offers a riot of Taunton symbolism, including a banner which evokes the seal of the town of Taunton - the source of that cherub and crown; the town motto Defendamus;* and a scattering of letter Ts. The current coat of arms, granted to the Borough Council in 1934, also has a peacock while the royal crown has been simplified to a Saxon one. That may well suggest a pre-1934 date for the shopfront.

On the far right is a unicorn. Once more, we have some handy clues as to what it represents: a coat of arms and the motto virtute et industria. These place us in Bristol, whose linking of virtue and industry seems rather ironic given its role in the transatlantic slave trade.

We have, then, Somerset, Bath, Bristol and Taunton - but no reference to Weston itself. Perhaps that's because, according to Civic Heraldry, Weston was first granted arms in 1928. After all, the place was a small village until the Victorian boom in seaside holidays. Might this hint at the shopfront being pre-1928? The style would also suggest so.

Finally, after decoding the first floor decorations, it's worth looking up a little more to enjoy the castellated drainpipes at the top.

* 'We shall defend': it dates from the civil war, when the town was besieged but refused to surrender to Royalist forces.

Friday 18 December 2009

Murder and Victorian mayhem

This is definitely the time of year for sitting in the warm with a good book, so Lee Jackson couldn't have better timed the release of his latest novel. The Diary of a Murder, 'set in 1860s suburban Islington, traces the background to a middle-class housewife's murder through the pages of her husband's diary.' Appropriately for the season, it's being published as a free ebook: read it here.

Lee Jackson has written a number of novels set in Victorian London, all of which I've really enjoyed. He is also responsible for the amazing Victorian London website, a huge and wide-ranging collection of material covering most aspects of the nineteenth-century metropolis. Particularly apt for today is this letter from The Times of 17 December 1840. It shows not only that the city was experiencing similar weather, but also that some Victorians would have felt very much at home with ASBOs, complaints about policing and the like:
Sir, - I am much surprised to see that one of the most dangerous nuisances which, under the provisions of the Police Act, the police are empowered and directed to prevent in and near the metropolis, is allowed to be committed (even in their presence), which almost every street in the metropolis will prove. I allude to the making of slides by boys upon the road and pavement. I saw a striking effect of this practice myself a few evenings since. A person, in walking over a slide, fell down, and a gentleman passing myself having assisted him up and taken him to a surgeon, we found that he had received a violent contusion, and had his head and one eye cut in a most frightful way.
I take the liberty, as a friend to man and beast, of requesting your kind insertion of this letter, hoping that it may draw attention to and cause the prevention of this dangerous practice. I am, &c.,
P.S. You will find, that under the 17th clause of the 54th section of the 47th cap. of 2 and 3 Victoria, "that every person who shall make or use any slide upon ice or snow in any street or other thoroughfare shall be liable to a penalty of 40s." If this was enforced in a few instances, it would be a very useful warning to offenders.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Edwardian christmas cracker making

The 'snow' is sleet, the wind is icy, and it's dark before teatime - but maybe this will get us back into the Christmas mood. A fascinating film from 1910, it shows how crackers were made; it's worth watching the whole film just for the slightly bizarre ending!

Clarke Nickolls & Coombs were confectionery and jam manufacturers, founded in 1872 and based in Hackney. They appear to have been unusually socially responsible employers, having introduced profit-sharing in 1890 as well as providing a convalescent home and social clubs for employees. A provident fund paid pensions, funeral grants and even 'marriage portions' for female employees. In 1946 the company changed its name to Clarnico, and later became part of Trebor Bassett. Presumably the christmas crackers being made here were a seasonal sideline.

This film is from the BFI Archives.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

How do you say Deptford?

The name 'Deptford' comes from 'deep ford', named for just such a ford across the Ravensbourne. However, the word gained that 't' in the middle to reflect a shift in local pronunciation to 'Detford'. Lewisham Council's leaflet (PDF) dates the change to the fifteenth century. But is that still how we pronounce the name today?

Google for the pronunciation, and the top result carefully enunciates all the consonants. It's pretty awkward, and I doubt that many people would make the effort on a daily basis! Rather, the consensus seems to be that it's still 'Detford' - the 't' somewhat softened by the London accent. That is, unless you take the train from London Bridge: the automated announcement's emphatic 'DeTTford' is very un-London with its crisp, sharp 't'.

Just to complicate matters further, seventeenth-century sailors pronounced the name as 'didfford'. However, they were 'notorious for the strangeness of their speech'. This rather special group aside, the 'Detford' pronunciation appears to have persisted across five or six centuries.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Ghost signs (30): Alpha Road pre-visited

One of the best ghost signs I've found in Deptford is the Brymay advertisement in Alpha Road. I was fascinated to find from mickmct's 1986 image that it's actually looking better today than it did then. A nice illustration of the positive role of billboards, however annoying they can be for obscuring these signs!

Monday 14 December 2009

Ghost signs (29): Deptford past

One of the major reasons for the Ghost Signs Archive is the realisation that these painted adverts are disappearing. The weather, demolition, cleaning them off or painting them over all contribute to that process.

How fast the process of disappearance can be was brought home to me by these photographs. They were taken by mickmct in Deptford in the 1980s and 1990s; do visit his flickr photostream for lots more ghost signs, many now gone, as well as more images of the High Street.

This image particularly appeared to me as it shows a building I've previously blogged about. It's 227 Deptford High Street in 1989, back before it became a 'building at risk'. I was particularly interested to see it here fulfilling its original purpose as a bakery.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Danger at Deptford docks

The docks could be a dangerous place to work, and not only because of water, machiner or other people. As ships arrived from around the world, they sometimes brought rather alarming passengers. I've discussed before how a tiger could turn deadly; in 1803, sailors confronted an equally colourful - and perilous - stowaway.
April, 1803. – A most singular discovery was lately made at Deptford. While a number of sailors and others were employed in unloading the cargo of the Admiral Aplin, an East Indiaman, who arrived at the above place a fortnight ago from Madras, (laden with sugar, saltpetre, and some bale goods,) then being in the act of dragging out of the hold some badgs of sugar, they discovered through a board in the hold of the ship a green snake of an amazing size, whose appearance was so terrific that it gave a general alarm, and it being well known that its bite is instantaneous death, it was found necessary to procure weapons for its destruction, which they completed by tying a spade to the end of one of the oars of the boat, by which they caught it by the neck and confined it till they severed the head from the body. It was as green as grass, 15 feet long, and 18 inches in circumference. It is supposed that this animal in the night time found its way on board the ship, while lying at Madras, by the means of concealing itself in one of the bags of sugar, or sliding on one of the planks into the hold, following the scent of sugar. Its bite is always understood to be more venomous than the bite of a rattle snake.

Image by Rishivairale from Wikimedia Commons: Trimeresurus gramineus or Asian pit viper, one of India's green and venomous snakes (although somewhat smaller than the serpent described here). Suggestions for a more plausible candidate welcome!

Saturday 12 December 2009


In September 1798, the newspapers reported that
A few days since a potatoe was dug up in the garden of Mr. Stratton, at Deptford, weighing upwards of eight pounds. In the middle was a cavity, containing about a pint and a half of a clear and almost tasteless liquid.
Perhaps it's because I'm no gardener that I was less amazed by the size of the potato than by the bravery (or stupidity) of the person who tasted the liquid!

If the weighing was accurate, then this eighteenth-century spud outweighed what was until recently the official world's largest: a 7lb 13oz monster grown by K Sloan of the Isle of Man. However, there were reports last year of an incredible 24.9lb potato in Tyre, Lebanon. Farmer Khalil Semhat claimed that he had grown it without fertiliser, and needed help to lift it out of the ground.

Friday 11 December 2009

Brighton details

The Brighton Dome, part of the marvellous Royal Pavilion complex, was built as stabling and a riding hall. That's hard to believe today, not only because it was converted into a concert hall back in the 1860s but also because it's a sumptuous building in 'Indo-Saracenic' style. The Eurovision contest was held here the year Abba won, but the hall suffered from neglect for many years.

Happily, it was restored in 2002 and is back to its former glory. Even the side entrance has some lovely decorative details:

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Deptford bricks

Today I made two discoveries at once: not only the Room of One Zone blog by Deptford Marmoset, but in particular this fascinating post about historic brickwork uncovered on the Tidemill School site. It's a tantalising story which makes me very glad Marmoset was there in time with a camera.

Where is this?

I don't think this one's very difficult so the only clue I'll give is that it's not in London.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Deptford Sewage Pumping Station

Bazalgette's great scheme for London's sewage transformed London and the Thames, and a surprising amount of it is visible on the surface. Most grandly, there are the embankments created along the Thames and the reshaping of the river itself.

At the other end of the scale, we have the Italianate buildings of Deptford Sewage Pumping Station. Despite the name, it's on the Greenwich side of Deptford Creek, and can be seen from Greenwich High Road too. The buildings still surviving opened in 1865 (although the left-hand part of the brick structure is a 1905 extension).

To the foreground of the picture above is the coal shed, with behind it the beam engine houses. The engines (later replaced by diesel and electric pumps) certainly had plenty of work to do. Three intercepting sewers, fed by smaller mains and local sewers, brought South London's sewage here. The pumping station then raised the sewage eighteen feet, after which it was originally discharged directly into the Thames. However, the Southern Outfall Sewer was soon completed and thereafter the pumped sewage was not discharged but flowed by gravity down to the outfall sewer at Crossness.

The flow of raw sewage into the river must have done little to enhance the already-industrialised Creek and Thames. Even after the sewage was rerouted to discreetly make its way via the Deptford pumps to Crossness, the pumping station didn't attract much civic pride. Dews, in his History of Deptford, failed to mention it when he listed the businesses along both shores of the Creek although he did include wharves, gas works, soap works, a kamptulicon factory and a chemical works among others.

Maybe the distinctive smell was the reason: a letter to the Kentish Mercury of 2 April 1889 complains about a (temporary) smell of sewage in Greenwich and comments that
There is always a disagreeable smell, more or less, at Deptford, of what appears to be sewage ... It would seem, on the face of it, that [the local authorities] are exceedingly apathetic, as the smell referred to at Deptford has been going on for a long time.
It is perhaps surprising that anyone could distinguish the smell of sewage among Deptford's other odours. Not only were many of the industries listed above less than fragrant, but there were the smells of the Foreign Cattle Market, the noisome soap and candle factory in Frankham Street, breweries and distilleries, glue works, tar tanks... While old photographs of the town are always fascinating, we should perhaps be very thankful that there was no way of recording its smells!

Monday 7 December 2009


On my way back from Cockpit Arts' open studios yesterday, I rather belatedly got around to photographing these plants which were 'tagged' with their names as part of the Deptford X festival.

Pink Posse, who are responsible for the work, comment that wildflowers 'tag' our walls and pavements. It's an interesting idea which really does capture the way some plants grow in the most random and apparently unwelcoming of urban spaces. They point out the similarities of the two forms - not least that both tend to be removed as unwanted - although I part company with them at the suggestion that tagging offers 'transformation' of the environment in a positive sense.

As well as looking out for the tagged plants around Deptford, you can browse them at your leisure on an interactive map. It's a nice reminder of how many different types of 'weed' there are, and of how much we fail to notice as we walk through town.

Sunday 6 December 2009

More magic lanterns

Having followed the Invisible Paris contemporary architecture walk (which I highly recommend) to Bercy, I was delighted to see that the Cinamatheque had an exhibition on magic lanterns. I'd rather fallen in love with this form of entertainment during a show at the British Library, so it was lovely to explore the history further.

Drawing on their own vast collections as well as those of the Museo Nazionale del Cinema de Turin, the Cinematheque has brought to life centuries of magic lantern history. There are plenty of slides being projected around the exhibition space, while others are in display cases alongside lanterns. (My favourites included a lantern shaped like the Eiffel Tower.) Visitors can even have a go at operating a lantern themselves.

Among the stars of the show are slides from the Royal Polytechnic (now Westminster University; you can still see pre-cinema in its original theatre during the Professor Pepper's Ghost lecture series). The images are organised by theme, with sections ranging from education to eroticism. Alongside glass slides are early painted films, and another highlight was the projection of Emile Reynaud's 1894 Pantomimes Lumineuses, a hand-painted animation of a humorous visit to the beach complete with bathing huts and vintage swimwear. (See an extract here, although the image quality isn't as good).

Downstairs is the main cinema museum, which also covers pre-cinema and has some interesting magic lantern displays of its own as well as other early devices for seeing moving pictures. Here again, there are plenty of hands-on displays so you can enjoy these contraptions as they are meant to be used.

Practical info: the exhibition runs until 28 March 2010.
Cinematheque francaise, 51 rue de Bercy, 75012 Paris
Monday, Tuesday - Saturday 12-7pm (Thursday to 10pm); Sunday 10am-8pm.

Friday 4 December 2009

Fancy a painting of Deptford?

According to Artdaily, Sotheby's will be auctioning an eighteenth-century picture thought to feature Deptford Dockyard. The work by Samuel Scott is expected to fetch around half a million pounds; its
depiction of the great sailing vessels of the age, is characteristic of Scott’s most endearing work and it is painted on a grand scale; the painting measures 198cm by 211cm. It captures a British 6th rate naval vessel raising anchor in the Thames and as it does so, its sails are hoisted and men scramble about the upper rigging in a frantic effort to prepare the boat for catching the outgoing tide. The bustling waterborne activity suggests the close proximity of a dockyard and it is likely that the location is in fact the Royal Docks at Deptford. The painting captures all the bustle and commotion of river life and the scene would have been a familiar one in 18th century London.
If you can pay the estimated price of £4-600,000, then go along to Sotheby's next Wednesday evening. The rest of us can enjoy the catalogue reproduction here.

Thursday 3 December 2009

More Paris street art

A few interesting pieces of Paris street art, the first from the Marais and the others from Montmartre.

Jérôme Mesnager describes his trademark white men as 'a symbol of light, strength and peace'. They have been appearing since 1983, all over the world including China and Egypt. This image includes the words 'dessine moi une democratie' ('draw/design me a democracy'); see it being painted here.

Miss Tic's images also feature a figure - this time female, and usually accompanied by a witty slogan or play on words. She too made her debut in the 1980s; her images are stencilled, while Mesnager works freehand.

Wednesday 2 December 2009


Journalism students from Goldsmiths College have set up a new local website, EastLondonLines, which aims to provide news coverage for the communities along the East London Line ready for its reopening next year.

They've already appeared in the Guardian, and it will be interesting to see how the project develops. The first hurdle facing them is providing coverage outside the academic term: the site needs to raise funding to cover staffing costs during the university holidays. A real introduction to the pressures of modern journalism!

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Eiffel Tower bunker

The Eiffel Tower has the river Seine in front of it and a large, landscaped area, the Champ de Mars, behind. Before being turned into gardens, the Champ de Mars was first the parade ground for the Ecole Militaire and then the site of the 1889 Universal Exhibition for which the tower was constructed. Today, they form the heart of tourist Paris - but that doesn't stop them holding secrets.

Under the Champ de Mars is an underground complex complete with secret tunnel. It dates from the days after the Exhibition of 1889, when the tower had been a hugely popular tourist attraction. Once it ended, though, visitor numbers fell and there was talk of demolishing the tower.

Eiffel hated that idea, so he sought alternative uses for the structure, encouraging its use for scientific experiments. The long-term answer was in the new radio technology, which required high places for the antennae. The tower became home to radio antennae used by the French army and its immediate future was thus secured. The army needed somewhere close at hand for the communications staff, but public opinion was unlikely to favour a large new building on the site so it was constructed under the site instead.

However, once the First World War was underway, the army became concerned. What if Paris was invaded by the advancing German army? The communications equipment might need to be evacuated with great urgency. An underground tunnel was thus built for the purpose, leading from the bunker to the tower and then to the river. It is still there, but hardly somewhere you'd want to walk through carrying heavy equipment: it's narrow, low, and very dark. Luckily for the staff who would have had to negotiate this confined space bearing cumbersome loads, sufficient notice was received of the imminent invasion of Paris that the city was saved from occupation and the tunnel was not used.

Today the underground area has other uses, such as storage and housing the air conditioning plant for the tower's restaurants. I was able to visit it, including the secret tunnel, during a 'backstage' tour of the Eiffel Tower which I'd highly recommend.

Monday 30 November 2009

The biter bit

A great story of one nineteenth-century gentleman getting his well-deserved comeuppance - twice!
On Friday, Mrs. Mary Ash, the wife of a respectable tradesman at Deptford, was charged with having committed an assault on Major John Purdy, an officer in the army of the United States.

The complainant stated, that on the preceding evening, as he was walking along Deptford, he met the defendant, and merely said to her as he passed, in a low tone of voice, “Will you take me home with you, Miss?” when she, without further provocation, struck him a severe blow on the face with a large jug that she had in her hand at the time. [Magistrate] Mr. Chambers – “If that is the mode in which you address respectable women in your own country, Sir, I must tell you that it will not do in this. The familiarity of the expression was quite sufficient to arouse the feelings of any but an abandoned female.”

The defendant declared that she had been most grossly treated by the complainant, who had been sauntering up and down the street for a length of time, walked up, and pushing himself against her in a very rude manner, said, “Come along with me.” She paid no attention to the words he uttered, merely remarking to Mrs. Boyce that it was the conduct of any but a gentleman, and they still continued their conversation. The complainant, however, instead of proceeding forward, turned suddenly round, and again pushed up against her, and with an umbrella, which he carried, gave her a violent stroke with it on the lower part of the back. The moment she received the blow, having a jug in her hand, in which she was going to get some beer, she resented the conduct pursued towards her, and struck the assailant in the face with it. She had no sooner given the blow than the complainant called a police constable, and gave her into custody. Fortunately, however, she escaped being locked up all night, on procuring bail for her appearance.

The Major was then placed in the situation of defendant, and Mrs. Ash, having been sworn, detailed the foregoing statement, which was corroborated in every particular by Mrs. Boyce, who witnessed the conduct of the defendant. In addition, it was stated that the Major had insulted several decent married women in the street, and that he came from the west end of the town in order to carry on his tricks with impunity. – He was fined £5.

Sunday 29 November 2009

Shillibeer's omnibus drama in Deptford

The debates over London's buses roll on, and we are still waiting to find out what the 'new Routemaster' will be like. Of course, one of the arguments against the old Routemaster was the potential danger of an open rear platform. We might have our own views on that, but imagine the greater risks offered by the original Shillibeer's omnibus. First, it had not only an open rear platform but also an entirely open upper deck. Add in poor suspension, poor road surfaces and a drop too much to drink, and you have the accident that befell poor Alexander Moore in July 1835:
FATAL ACCIDENT. – On Wednesday evening a collegeman named Alexander Moore 54 years of age fell from the roof of one of Mr. Shillibeer’s omnibuses in the Broadway, Deptford, by which his skull was fractured, and he was otherwise injured. He was immediately taken to the surgery of the Kent Dispensary, and every attention paid to him; but he expired within an hour after. The deceased was in liquor when the accident occurred, and a verdict of “Accidental Death” was returned at a Coroner’s inquest held on the body by C. J. Carttar, Esq.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Deptford Update update

The Deptford Update exhibition has now been extended, with extra openings on 4-6 December, 12-5pm, and late night opening on Friday 27 November.

On a similar theme, there will be a public exhibition of the Convoys Wharf proposals on the Convoys Wharf site, 5 December 10am-4pm and 8 December 2-8pm.
The Deptford Dame has a lot more detail on this.

Until 29 November, APT Gallery is hosting the Deptford Update exhibition. It features drawings and models of public projects in Deptford and North Lewisham: a plan for Creekside, improved pedestrian connections on Church Street, and proposals for Kender Triangle, New Cross Gate. Visitors are invited to comment on the projects, and there is an accompanying programme of events.

The exhibition is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Lewisham Clock Tower

Across the road from Tower House is another Lewisham tower: its clock tower. Erected to commemorate Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897, there's even a crown on top to highlight the royal association.

A plaque near the base explains that the clock was paid for by public subscription, 'supplemented by a grant of £500 from a fund bequeathed to the parish by Michael Thomas Whitehall of Catford'. Lewisham District Board of Works provided both the site and the maintenance. Even the architect (A R Gough) and builders (Jerrard & Sons) get a mention. At the top of the plaque is the inscription VR & I, which can be puzzling at first sight: who is the 'I' pairing themselves with Queen Victoria? It's actually just part of her title: 'Imperatrix', or Empress.

The clock tower may have stood in Lewisham for over a century, but it hasn't always stood on the same spot. When the High Street was remodelled in the 1990s, the clock's position was changed slightly.

My favourite feature is the little door at the back: rather charming unless, perhaps, you were the person responsible for winding the clock in this tiny, windowless space.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Singing rocks (2)

I've posted before about Brittany's fascinating pierres sonnantes (ringing stones). They've long been popular with visitors to the area around Notre-Dame de Guildo, and I couldn't resist this postcard which I found in the antiques market at Saint Ouen. Although it was sent in 1920, the outfits are clearly pre-First World War.

Monday 23 November 2009

Ghost signs (28): Montmartre

Paris isn't the richest hunting ground for ghost signs, but I've spotted a few in Montmartre. They're all pretty worn, a far cry from the freshly-restored Cadum baby a short distance away.

This sign is almost opposite the Moulin Rouge. It has not only faded but also suffered the further ignominy of someone replacing a strip of wall right down its centre! The lettering looks familiar but I can't place the brand - any ideas? (And as an irrelevant aside, just look how many chimney pots there are.)

Moving around the side of the Moulin Rouge onto rue Puget, there's a more legible sign advertising a cobbler. Unfortunately, A La Botte Blanche is no longer there - but its name lingers on; nameless but also still present is a second business advertised underneath, with references to painting, papers and maintenance products. Now, time is racing with taggers to make these traces disappear.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Tower House, Lewisham

Near the clock tower in Lewisham is a rather fun building - look above street level and you'll notice ships with smoking funnels, trains and lorries decorating the facade. At the top are the bold dates 1868 and 1933 - the latter being the year it was built. The site had previously housed G Stroud, a large drapers' store.

Originally known as Tower House, this building was the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society's flagship department store (see it in a photo from 1934). That makes sense of much of the decoration including the lorry bearing the letters RACS and the prominent 1868 - the year of the Society's foundation. The reason for the transport theme is less obvious.

RACS may have begun as a food shop in Plumstead, but it grew to offer a huge range of products and services: books, jewellery, shoes, pharmacy, catering, hairdressers, laundry, travel agency, hotels, life insurance and even an undertaker's. It constructed housing on the Bostall Estate, had an education section and was politically active. Around 1975, the society counted half a million members - but a decade later it had declined drastically and merged with the national co-operative society.

Friday 20 November 2009

Thames skulls

On Saturday, I went to the Thames Discovery Project's Foreshore Forum. We had a great day of discussions and some fascinating lectures including one on skulls found in the Thames.

Large numbers of skulls have been found in the river over the years, particularly during the nineteenth century. The Thames was regularly dredged, and while much of the material was used to build the embankments, it was first carefully sifted for skulls - Victorian collectors would pay good money for them.

However, how had these human bones - many prehistoric - got there? We still don't know for sure, but Yvonne Edwards of UCL's Institute of Archaeology explored the possible answers. There are two competing theories: that the skulls were deliberately placed there for ritual reasons, or that they are from entire bodies which entered the river through accident, suicide or murder.

What evidence suggests that these skulls had a ritual purpose?
  • Some of the skulls have been found among deliberately-deposited weapons;
  • There have been large concentrations of skulls found in certain areas;
  • Other bones from the skeleton were not found with them;
  • There is evidence which may suggest that flesh had been deliberately removed from some skulls.
What about the accidental/violent death theory?
  • The lack of associated bones is best explained by the way that bodies behave in the river. The head is relatively heavy and not strongly attached to the rest of the body, so it can soon detach once in the water. The jawbone also soon separates. The movement of the river then ensures that if it doesn't quickly settle in the silt, the skull is transported away from the rest of the skeleton.
  • If the skulls had been placed ritually with weapons, we would expect a higher than usual ratio of male remains. However, the sex ratio is more or less the same as for contemporary drownings in the Thames.
  • The varied condition of skulls found in the Thames indicates that many had moved in the river. Where they were found, then, may tell us more about river movement than about where the bones entered the water.
The second theory, then, is the more likely one for most Thames skulls. There is also a third explanation for some: that their original riverside burial sites have been eroded. However these skulls came to be in the Thames, though, they still fascinate us today just as they fascinated those Victorian collectors.