Friday 30 January 2009

Tin tabernacles, old and new

Tin tabernacles were a cheap, quick alternative to the traditional stone church: you could literally buy one from a catalogue. Actually made of corrugated iron, many disappeared once their congregations could afford to build in brick or stone but a number of survivors are scattered around London and the country.

I was also delighted to visit one with the Victorian Society last year. This lovely example in Littlebury Green, Essex was built in 1885 from a flat-pack kit (presumably with better instructions than the average bookcase). Even the 'stained' glass came in the form of ready-made film to be attached to the windows. Since it serves as chapel of ease to a hamlet of just 52 houses, it was perhaps always safer than most from more expensive replacement; but these buildings are also vulnerable to other issues, not least rust. However, thanks to local support and restoration, its condition is remarkably good (other tin tabernacles have not been so fortunate or so loved).

While in many parts of the country churches are falling out of use, there is still strong demand for premises around Deptford. As a result, some congregations have found a contemporary version of the tin tabernacle:

Thursday 29 January 2009

Les Ponts Neufs and the perils of old books

Fond as I am of old guide books, I have to admit that they have their limitations. Inspired by my 1891 guide to Brittany and a couple of vintage postcards, I persuaded my parents this summer that a trip to the scenic spot of Les Ponts Neufs, complete with waterfall and just perfect for picnics, would be a good idea. Better still, the modern guides seem to have missed it so it should be fairly quiet...

Oops. In 1894 Les Ponts Neufs became the location of a small hydro-electric power station complete with barrage-bridge over the waterfall. It's still pretty scenic, but not quite what we expected! The plant supplied nearby Saint Brieuc; it currently houses two turbines installed in 1920, and is apparently still in operation, owned by EDF.

There was also an unexpected bonus: the amazing railway viaduct built by local man Louis Auguste Harel de La Noë between 1913 and 1922. Born in Saint Brieuc, de la Noë studied in Paris before returning to Brittany as chief engineer of roads and bridges for the Côtes du Nord in 1901. He had already won awards for an x-shaped bridge in Le Mans (sadly destroyed in the Second World War) and for his pioneering work in reinforced concrete construction. He would now play a vital role in the building of the region's new railways, impressing with his light and elegant bridges.
Over 237 metres long and 27.6 metres high, the Ponts-Neufs viaduct is impressive even at first glance (I'm afraid the photo doesn't really do it justice). The tall pillars and ornamented spans are more than visually appealing, though: this was among the first reinforced concrete constructions. Building methods including prefabrication and standardised processes were also novel; de la Noë achieved all this despite the interruption of the First World War.

Unfortunately, the pioneering nature of the technology brought its own problems. The sand used included salt; bubbles were not removed by vibration; and the steel was insufficiently protected. Nonetheless, the bridge not only survives but continues to soar over its valley. By contrast, other de la Noë bridges have been demolished, one as recently as 1995: it's hardly surprising that the association Harel de La Noë now seeks to preserve this viaduct and even bring it back into use.

Tuesday 27 January 2009

Cancale, 1935

Sometimes, a building is pleasing simply because it is so entirely of its time and place. One example is La Poste - the post office - in Cancale. This detail shows how design, typography, and decoration are very 1930s and very French. Even the boat depicted is the local bisquine.

Monday 26 January 2009

5 specialist museums in London

Forget sweeping remits like ‘modern art’ or ‘science’: these museums focus on one tiny area. Immerse yourself in something new!

Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising
Full of items from the Robert Opie collection, this museum offers a heady mixture of design, marketing and consumption history. Travel through the time tunnel, enjoying packaging and advertisements from the 1850s to the present - nostalgia fix guaranteed. There are also additional exhibitions including Waste Not, Want Not which focuses on World War II and runs until the end of November.
Practical info: 2 Colville Mews, Lonsdale Road, W11 2AR. Open Tues-Sat, 10-6, Sun 11-5. £5.80.

Time has been a central element in London's history, from the place of clocks in its luxury goods market to the importance of timekeeping for navigation. Discover more, all illustrated by some amazing timepieces, in this little guild museum within the Guildhall.
Practical info: the museum is in the Guildhall, just down from the bookshop. Monday-Saturday, 9.30-4.30; admission is free.

Fan Museum
Two lovely Georgian houses in the heart of Greenwich house this unique museum. Its collection of 3,500 fans includes many treasures: fans painted by Gauguin, fans hiding secret French Royalist images, fans carved out of ivory to look like fine lace. There is far more to the fan than you ever imagined! Displays illustrate how fans were made and used; there are regular exhibitions, too.
Practical info: 12 Crooms Hill, SE10 8ER. Open Tues-Sat 11-5, Sunday 12-5; admission £4.

Crystal Palace Museum
From the opening of the Great Exhibition to the terrible fire which destroyed the Crystal Palace forever, this museum covers the full history. Rich with photographs, paintings, a model and original memorabilia, the collection takes you through the building’s incredible history including its move from Hyde Park to south-east London; the amazing exhibitions, entertainments, sports events and meetings held there; and its role as the early home of television. Then, poignantly, there is a case of objects salvaged from the Palace after the fire which destroyed it in 1936. Appropriately, the museum is housed in the Crystal Palace Company’s only surviving building, a former classroom for its School of Practical Engineering.
Practical info: Anerley Hill, Crystal Palace, SE19 2BA. Open Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays 11am-4.30pm. Admission free (donations welcome).

London Transport Museum
Here's proof that even a specialist museum can find fame and a prime central London site. Although it's dedicated to the transport history of one city, the London Transport Museum's galleries are filled with tourists, daytrippers and even Londoners. Who could resist the beautifully restored vehicles, fascinating displays, and chance to collect stamps as you walk around?
Practical info: Covent Garden Piazza, WC2E 7BB. Open daily 10am-6pm (Fri 11am-9pm). £10.

This is a pretty random selection: the only criterion was regular opening hours rather than opening by appointment. Again, your suggestions are also welcome!

Sunday 25 January 2009

Postman's Park (25): Joseph William Onslow

Reynolds's Newspaper reported on the death of Joseph William Onslow. He worked as a lighterman: that is, a boatman who carried goods from cargo ships to shore. He had perhaps earned his place in the Postman's Park memorial more than most, since the inquest heard that he had previously saved three lives through similar action.
A NOBLE FELLOW – On Friday the deputy coroner for East Middlesex held an inquest at the Gun Hotel, Wapping, on the body of Joseph William Onslow, aged twenty-two, a lighterman. William Dare, 7, Broad-street, Old Gravel-lane said on Tuesday last he was with the deceased on board a barge, when their attention was attracted to the cries of a boy who had fallen into the water from off Wapping-stairs. The deceased, without a moment’s hesitation, plunged into the water, and swam towards the stairs, and in the direction of the boy, who was seen fifty or sixty yards distant. When about three yards off the lad the deceased appeared to be seized with cramp, and before further assistance could be obtained he sank from the view of a number of spectators, who were standing on the banks of the river. The boy was rescued by a man in a barge by means of a boat-hook, but the deceased was drowned. It was stated that previously the deceased had jumped in the river in the same daring manner, and saved no less than three lives. The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental death.”

The memorial plaque is dedicated to:


For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Friday 23 January 2009

5 one-person museums in London

Many of London’s most famous museums are national or even global in their focus. However, here are some at the other end of the scale: each is dedicated to just one person.

Florence Nightingale Museum
Yes, she was the lady with the lamp – but her work in the Crimea was just a tiny part of her life. It did demonstrate, though, that disease and unhygienic conditions were killing more soldiers than battle: Nightingale did the statistical work to prove it, and then acted on her conclusions. Many of her most important contributions were to nursing education and practise; find out more in this museum within St Thomas’s Hospital (which she helped to design).
Practical info: 2 Lambeth Palace Road, SE1 7EW; open daily 10am-5pm; £5.80.

Sir John Soane's Museum
Eccentric, eclectic, crammed full of the architect's collection of art and antiquities, the museum is less about Soane's life than his vision and taste. He designed this home himself to house his collection, and intended it to serve after his death as a museum for students and others. Every room has its own atmosphere and surprises, and there are knowledgeable staff on hand to tell you more. After experiencing his house, it's hard to imagine Soane being architect to as conservative an institution as the Bank of England!
Practical info: 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP; open Tue-Sat, 10am-5pm; admission free.

Benjamin Franklin House
Franklin combined American politics with scientific achievement. Thus he is remembered as the inventor of the lightning conductor, but also as a signatory of the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution. He was also a printer, and first visited London to learn more about the trade; he later lived in this house for a number of years while serving as representative of Pennsylvania and other American colonies. This was therefore effectively the first American embassy. The museum offers a multimedia tour through the house, exploring his life with film, sound recordings and a costumed guide.
Practical info: 36 Craven Street, WC2N 5NF; open Wed-Sun (book online); admission £7.

Sherlock Holmes Museum
A fictional person still counts, honest! This little museum is great fun: as you wander around Holmes’s Baker Street rooms complete with reminders of his famous cases, it’s easy to forget that the great detective lived only in books. It has an educational element too, highlighting various aspects of Victorian and Edwardian life referred to in the books. I found out such useful facts as just what a gasogen is!
Practical info: 221B Baker Street (of course), NW 1 6XE; open daily 9.30am-6pm; £6.

Apsley House
Rejoicing in the address No. 1 London, this grand mansion on Hyde Park Corner was the home of the Duke of Wellington. As well as his art collection, it houses information on his life and achievements. I was particularly dazzled (literally!) by a huge, ornate silver table centrepiece. Entry is free for Waterloo Day (18 June) each year, and there are usually talks and events all that day too.
Practical info: Hyde Park Corner, W1J 7NT; open Wed-Sun 11am-4pm; £5.40.

Of course, these are just five out of many. Which others would you recommend?

Thursday 22 January 2009

Craven Street

A true gem in the heart of London, this road is just around the corner from Trafalgar Square. Many of its eighteenth-century houses survive: ignore the cars and the intruding modern buildings and you can imagine you've walked back in time.

However, Craven Street was not always so elegant, Until 1730 it was Spur Alley, site of the Salutation Inn. Both name and reputation changed when the Earl of Craven laid out the present housing.

It is full of traces of its famous former residents. Benjamin Franklin lived at 36 Craven Street, now the Benjamin Franklin House museum. His landlady's son-in-law used the house as a school of anatomy: during renovations, a large quantity of bones were found in the garden. Many showed signs of dissection and practice of procedures such as trepanning. Further down the road, there is a literary flavour: plaques record how Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, and the German poet Heinrich Heine lived here. Grinling Gibbons did too, and Dr Charles West who founded Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Another resident was humorist James Smith, who wrote:

In Craven Street, Strand, ten attorneys find place,
And ten dark coal barges are moor'd at its base;

Fly, Honesty, fly! seek some safer retreat,

For there's craft in the river, and craft in the street.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Postman's Park (24): Ernest Benning

On 25 August 1883, Ernest Benning and three companions went by boat (a small skiff) to Kew. They made their way back that evening. At 9pm, they had reached Pimlico when they suddenly realised that their boat was dangerously close to the steamer Wedding Ring.

Unfortunately, it seems that their reaction was the immediate cause of the disaster which followed. By panicking and standing up, they caused the boat to capsize. It then collided with the oncoming steamer, throwing the occupants into the Thames. One William Large, on the river with his wife and child, rowed to the scene and pulled two of the four people into his boat. A fisherman rescued a third, but Benning could not be found. The memorial plaque records that he had been supporting one of the others, a woman, with an oar but sank before he could be rescued himself.

Benning's body was found under Waterloo pier. The jury found that his was an accidental death, and expressed their admiration of the witnesses who had saved the others' lives.


For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Urban dinosaurs: Crystal Palace Park

When the Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park to its new site, the surrounding park was also intended as a place of entertainment and education. Nowhere were those two aims better combined than in the dinosaur park (the first in the world). Entertaining as it might be to wander around scenic lakes with prehistoric animals at every turn, the visitor was also expected to learn.

The creator of this section was none other than Professor Richard Owen, the man who invented the word 'dinosaur'. Sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse-Hawkins, the creatures were placed to create a timeline illustrating the new and shocking idea that such animals had existed millions of years ago. (This was all happening in 1854, five years before Darwin's Origin of the Species was published).

The park's prehistoric inhabitants haven't always had a happy time. The display was never completed because money ran out - otherwise we might have had a mammoth and a dodo there as well - and by the late twentieth century had fallen badly into disrepair. However, recent restoration has returned the models to their full Victorian glory, complete with original colours, and resisted the temptation to correct them in light of later discoveries. Thus the ichthyosaurus is shown coming onto land (it couldn't), missing its dorsal fin, and with an incorrectly-shaped tail.

The megatherium (which should be dark brown) looks as if it's playing hide and seek. Its tree is the Victorian original; in fact, it went on to grow so much that it broke the animal's arm off. No risk of that happening again: the tree is now dead.

Another attempt to mingle model and reality was the megaloceros, which originally incorporated genuine fossilised antlers. However, since fossils are stone and the models are concrete on hollow iron frames, the antlers proved too heavy and were replaced with replicas.

The final educational feature for the Victorian visitor was the illustration of geological strata. A cliff complete with coal measures, ironstone and fault lines combined lessons in geology and in the raw materials of industry. An afternoon in the park had become an improving experience!

Monday 19 January 2009

The Deptford election 1888 and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt

When decorator Samuel Newson was prosecuted for impersonating a voter in the Deptford by-election of February 1888, the police officer commented that 'there was a great deal of excitement that day'. There certainly was: in the keenly-fought election, one of the candidates was campaigning from prison.

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt was an upper-class explorer, horse breeder, poet and anti-imperialist. After travelling to Egypt, Lebanon and Arabia in the 1870s he started breeding Arab horses and often wore Arab dress at home. His wife Anne was actively involved with him in these travels and other activities, not least the 1888 election campaign, until their legal separation in 1906 (he had been persistently unfaithful and the last straw came when he moved a mistress into the home).

The Deptford election was Blunt's third attempt in as many years to get elected to parliament. However, this campaign was hampered by the fact that he was serving a two-month prison sentence in Ireland for breach of the peace and resisting the police after presiding over a meeting in favour of Home Rule. Indeed, support for Irish home rule was a key part of his campaign. His wife and Gladstone's wife canvassed the constituency on his behalf, but he lost by just 275 votes - in itself quite an achievement. The victorious candidate was Charles Darling, a Conservative like his predecessor William John Evelyn. Blunt would not contest any further elections.

Image: Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, from Wikimedia Commons.

Related post: Deptford election joke.

Sunday 18 January 2009

Postman's Park (23): Richard Farris

Both the report in Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper and the memorial tile in Postman's Park treat this story as straightforward. Richard Farris dived into the Surrey Canal to save Eliza Arlott, who jumped in when distressed by something her sweetheart had said. However, one wonders why he 'accosted' the witness but did not try to prevent her jumping or seek help from passers-by.
It appeared from the evidence of a young man, named Thomas Charles Hodgson, of 29, Stanton-street, Commercial-road, that on Monday night last, as he was about to cross Globe-bridge, which spans the Surrey canal between Peckham and Camberwell, he was accosted by Farris, with whom he was acquainted. Farris pointed to a girl who was leaning on the parapet of the bridge, with her face buried in her hands, and said to the witness that if she (meaning the girl) went into the water, he would go in after her. The witness (Hodgson) noticed the girl, but saying nothing, passed over the bridge, and entered the Surrey View public-house. Five minutes afterwards he heard an alarm of somebody being in the water, and rushed to procure the drags. The young woman had been greatly distressed about something her sweetheart had said to her. The jury returned a verdict, “That Farris had been accidentally drowned whilst humanely endeavouring to save the life of Eliza Arlott, who had committed suicide while in a state of temporary insanity.”
The undercurrents to this story remain mysterious, but the event itself is marked in the Watts Memorial:


For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Friday 16 January 2009

Deptford election joke which ended in jail

On 28 February 1888, a parliamentary election was being held in Deptford. That same day, 25-year-old decorator Samuel Newson went to a local pub for a drink. When somebody gave him a voting card, he thought it would be a bit of fun to go and vote. Sadly for him, the joke went very wrong.

Newson arrived at the polling station in Monson Road and told the Presiding Officer that he was Samuel Buckoke of 1 Faulkner Street. He declared this on oath (a procedure used for those who could not read or write) and stuck to his story despite being asked his name four times. However, a personating agent - whose duty was to make himself acquainted with local voters precisely so that this kind of imposture could be spotted - was also present. He had canvassed the house of Mr Buckoke, so knew that Newson was a fraud. Newson was then given in charge to the police and admitted his real identity. The arresting officer did not think he was drunk but he may have been excited as 'there was a great deal of excitement that day'.

Unfortunately, the matter didn't end there. Newson was charged with personating a voter. At his first trial on 19 March the jury couldn't agree a verdict, but he was convicted on retrial in May. The incident doens't seem to have been taken too seriously - the personating agent told the court that he had made inquiries and found the defendant to be honest and respectable. The jury also recommended mercy on account of his good character. Nonetheless, he was sentenced to (a relatively lenient) one month's imprisonment with hard labour.

Thursday 15 January 2009

1911 census online

The 1911 census for England and Wales is now online (or at least, 80% of it is), and the site appears to be coping well with demand. I'm mostly delighted by this, but there is one fly in the ointment.

First, the good news. The records are fully searchable, leading to discoveries unlikely to be made browsing through paper copies. For example, one of my great-aunts had left the village she was born in (and to which she would later return) for Birmingham. She was domestic servant to a butcher and his family. A woman from the same area was working for the same family as a butcher's assistant, which suggests that Great-Aunt Charity found the job by word of mouth.

1911 is also the first census for which the original returns have been preserved. That means that you can see the original entries in the occupier's own writing. It's nice to know that my great-great grandmother had really neat handwriting; and perhaps surprising that she couldn't spell 'Ebenezer', her own son's name!

The release of the census has also highlighted a little bit of feminist history: many suffragists refused to fill in the forms as part of their fight for the vote. Their comments, such as 'If I am intelligent enough to fill in this paper, I am intelligent enough to put a cross on a voting paper', survive on the original returns.

The downside? Simply, the cost. You might want to search sparingly since each original page image - just one household - costs up to £3.48. It is a beautiful, sharp, colour image and the digitisation process is expensive. However, this pricing rather discourages browsing through even small local areas, let alone checking multiple records to track down a person with a common name. If you do want to find more than a few records, the site's blog suggests that a subscription option will become available later this year.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Postman's Park (22): Joseph Andrew Ford

We have already seen that the escape ladders operated by the London Fire Brigade were not infallible: George Lee had died in 1876 when his broke. The main danger was the fire itself, which could spread to the escape and those on it. The issue of how best to make these machines fire-resistant was therefore a crucial one, and had been considered in some detail at the inquest of another fireman, Joseph Andrew Ford, five years earlier.

As his memorial explains,


The inquest evidence established that he fell to his death from the top of the fire ladder after the canvas chute and its wire netting support burned through. The coroner and jury gave most of their attention to the question of whether his death had been a preventable tragedy.

The Society for the Protection of Life from Fire thought that it was. They had always used copper gauze rather than wire mesh: it was more expensive, but they felt that it was also more fire-resistant. A fire-escape manufacturer, Mr Clarke (who had recently lost his contract with the Fire Brigade) suggested that his secret formula for rendering canvas anti-inflammable might have helped too.

Various witnesses from the fire brigade - including its head, Captain Shaw - gave evidence that in fact, the fire escapes were as good as they could be and the higher cost of copper gauze had not been a factor. Rather, the fire officers themselves had decided that they preferred the netting: it was stronger, less likely to crack and get damaged when the escape was moved, and made the escape easier to transport in the wind. As for rendering the canvas uninflammable, alum had been tried but it washed out in the rain.

The jury's verdict was accidental death. However, they were clearly unconvinced by Captain Shaw and his colleagues since they added the rider that
We are of the opinion that the fire escape, by falling from which the deceased met with his death, was not constructed in the most efficient manner, and are of the opinion that had the shoot [sic] of the escape been covered with copper gauze instead of wire netting, and the canvas rendered uninflammable, the death of the deceased would have been avoided.

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Deptford Creek

Deptford Creek has long formed a boundary between Deptford and Greenwich. In the past, it was a significant physical barrier: the very name 'Deptford' refers to the 'deep ford' there. As recently as the nineteenth century the river slowed down construction of London's first commuter railway (hence Deptford Station opened four years before Greenwich).

In fact, the creek is the mouth of the river Ravensbourne. It is tidal - the picture above was taken at low tide - and navigable. Historically, small shipbuilders and mills were located here, taking advantage of its tidal waters and proximity to the Royal Dockyard. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was a popular industrial location, with the power station and various mills enjoying the combination of water for their own needs, easy deliveries by boat, and access to the Thames. Chemical works, verdigris works and soap factories must have made the environment pretty unpleasant.

Today, one cement works remains but the stretch is becoming more artistic than industrial. The Creekside Centre celebrates the creek's wildlife, neighboured by the Laban Centre and various artists' studios and workshops. Other hints of the area's creative life include this survivor from the Deptford X festival, crouching behind a Creekside wall:

Monday 12 January 2009

Blog bicentenary!

This is my 200th post, so it's a good opportunity to look back on what's appeared so far. Although I'd be the first to admit that the 'miscellany' title is well-advised, a few themes are emerging.

Most obviously, there's the Postman's Park series. The stories behind the plaques on the Watts Memorial, dedicated to acts of heroism by 'ordinary' people, are fascinating if melancholy. They also throw sidelights into topics as diverse as the Frost of 1895 (which makes our current cold spell look cosy by comparison), Victorian firefighting, air raids and the Silvertown explosion in World War I, and nineteenth-century pantomime.

Another major preoccupation is the history of Deptford. Some episodes, like the death of Christopher Marlowe, are fairly well-known; the conviction of the murderous Stratton brothers made legal history; while incidents of escaping tigers, flea-bitten horses and eighteenth-century gang crime are fascinating social history. Deptford even has its share of firsts - not least London's oldest surviving passenger railway station.

Then there are ghost signs - in London, Poole, Bridgwater and Brittany; other Breton curiosities such as singing rocks, dead twigs you can eat, and local legends; visits to Paris, Lyon, Tower Bridge and Open House weekend; the odd quiz...

I've met people through the London Bloggers meet-up group, attended some great events, and even won a case of wine for this post!

For me, though, what has been most enjoyable about the blog has been the contact I've had with its readers - thank you all!

Sunday 11 January 2009

Postman's Park (21): Thomas Simpson at Highgate Ponds

This icy tragedy seems appropriate for the current cold weather. In January 1885, Highgate Ponds had frozen over, making them appear perfect for skating. At 5pm on a Sunday evening, twilight may have been hovering but there were still about 200 people skating on the second pond. So far, it conjures up a picture from an old-fashioned biscuit tin lid: young ladies in ankle-length skirts decorously gliding across the ice, escorted by young men in formal hats. However, since it ended with a memorial plaque, we can guess what happened next...

The ice cracked, and a large portion gave way, plunging some people into the freezing-cold water. While tragedy was not averted, many lives were certainly served by others' rescue efforts. Above all, Thomas Simpson rescued several people. He wasn't an ice skater himself, but a farm labourer of about fifty whose employer Mr Ward rented the pond fields. He got into the water to bring one young man out - a difficult and exhausting rescue. However, when Simpson stooped down to rescue yet another stranded skater, the ice he was standing on gave way; this, combined with the cold and physical strain he had already undergone, meant that he was soon sinking. Although he was pulled from the water, he died very soon afterwards.

The inquest jury reached a verdict of accidental death. They also made two recommendations: first, that 'the Royal Humane Society should be respectfully requested to consider the subject with a view to establishing their life-saving apparatus and drags'; and second, that 'some authorized person should be stationed at the ponds, when ice was on the water, to protect the public from danger.'

Simpson's memorial reads:


Engraving: LIFE archive, 'An Idyll on the Ice', 1900

Friday 9 January 2009

West Greenwich Library and the American dream

The library on Greenwich High Road is an appealingly old-fashioned looking building, dating from 1907. The near-black plaque on its front blends in so well that it's easily overlooked. However, its one sentence - 'the gift of Andrew Carnegie Esq' - reveals a wealth of information about the library's origins.

West Greenwich was not the only beneficiary of Andrew Carnegie's philanthropy: he founded 2,811 libraries in English-speaking countries, particularly Britain and the United States. Carnegie would give a generous sum of money to build the libraries, on condition that the local authority provided a site and met running costs. The local population was also usually expected to provide the books.

So who was Carnegie? He was born in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1835, the son of a weaver and Chartist and of a woman he later described as a 'heroine'. The family emigrated to the United States when he was twelve. That year, he started work in a cotton mill; a few years later he became a telegraph messenger boy. Despite these humble beginnings, Carnegie was a passionate reader and took full advantage of the library of Colonel James Anderson, opened to working boys on Saturday evenings. He also gained fast promotion at work, and had started investing money in railways by the age of twenty. Such investments led to him becoming a leading industrialist, notably in steel, from which he made a fortune. Despite his radicalism in some areas (such as his support for British republicanism), his reputation was damaged by his anti-union stance in the Homestead Strike where his partner Andrew Frick brought in 300 armed men to break a strike by Carnegie Steel employees. Violent confrontation and ten deaths followed.

However, Carnegie believed strongly in the importance of philanthropy and supported a number of causes, many of which - like his libraries - were educational in purpose. By his death in 1919, he had given away over $350 million: appropriate for someone who had written that the 'man who dies rich dies disgraced.'

Thursday 8 January 2009

Greenwich High Road gets electric

Huddled into a shady corner, identified only by the initials LESC, this small building on Greenwich High Road is easy to overlook.

However, an article by Richard Cheffins for Greenwich Industrial History Society reveals the true significance of the building. LESC, or more usually LESCo, was the London Electricity Supply Company which owned Deptford Power Station. The uninspiringly-named Electric Lighting Orders Confirmation (No. 2) Act 1889 required LESCo to provide an electrical supply to Greenwich and parts of Deptford within two years 'for the purpose of general supply'. Cheffins has dated this particular electricity substation to the early 1920s, and points out that it is a very rare physical survival of this important episode in the area's history.

Further reading: Deptford Power Station.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

More on Deptford High Street

At first glance, Deptford High Street isn't historically exciting. The shop fronts are mostly modern, and the street can look a little shabby. However, there are plenty of interesting historical features - especially above the ground floor. Here are just a few.

You don't have to read local history for long before realising that Deptford was well-provided with drinking places in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Signs both textual and pictorial bear visible testimony to this:

Underneath the 'Elizabeth Place 1811' plaque below is a painted S: from the style and colouring, it seems to be a bomb shelter sign (compare it to the other examples Deptford Se8ker has spotted on the High Street). The window on the right is so grimy that it's easily missed, but the ornate style indicates that it has survived from grander days.

Another unexpectedly elaborate survival above a pound shop:

Finally, this poor building has fared less well. As I posted last year, the former eighteenth-century bakery is now on English Heritage's 'at risk' list.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Deptford: Butt Lane to High Street

In August 1825, a notice appeared:
THE PUBLICK are respectfully informed, that by the general Consent of the Inhabitants, the NAME of the STREET hitherto called BUTT LANE is now altered to HIGH STREET, by which Appellation it will in future be designated

High Street, Deptford,

August 13, 1825.

Printed by James Delahoy, Deptford Bridge.
The change of name reflected a change of function. In the eighteenth century, Deptford Church Street had been the town's main road. Butt Lane, by contrast, was a mixture of residential and agricultural premises. However, by the early nineteenth century, shops had moved to Butt Lane's larger buildings and it had effectively become what it is now called: the High Street. Within a few decades, its status was further confirmed by the building of the railway station.

Today, the High Street remains the centre of Deptford's shopping. Two highlights: first, a few years ago, Yellow Pages named it London's best, on the basis of a formula to calculate diversity. (Its only chain stores are Peacock's and Iceland). Second, the market on Wednesdays, Fridays and especially Saturdays is brilliant for all sorts of bargains - and don't miss the secondhand section on Douglas Way.

Related posts: Deptford Station, R Trickett's store.

Monday 5 January 2009

'Guide to the Unprotected': Victorian women and finance

Lee Jackson has just put a new e-text on his amazing Victorian London website. It's the 1874 Guide to the Unprotected in Every-day Matters Relating to Property and Income by 'a Banker's Daughter'.

Who were the 'unprotected'? The answer was 'widows and single ladies, and all young people'. There was a good reason to be so careful to exclude married women, since the legal doctrine of 'coverture' meant that before 1870, married women were not able to own their own property. Instead, they were subsumed under their husband's legal identity: in the words of jurist William Blackstone,
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.
Consequently, all the couple's property was legally the husband's, from the wife's inheritance and earnings to the clothes she wore. The Married Women's Property Act of 1870 had given wives limited rights to keep money earned or inherited after the marriage, but it was still assumed that any major financial dealings would be the responsibility of the husbands who 'protected' them.

The change in the law was the result of two pressures upon Parliament. First, there were feminist campaigns for such an Act, given the obvious unfairness of the law of coverture - especially where a marriage was unhappy or broke down. (Imagine being reduced to poverty by a husband who gambled and drank your wages away while living with another woman, for example). Second, local ratepayers objected to having to pay poor relief to women whose earnings had been taken by drunken or deserting husbands, leaving the parish to support them and their children. Letting those wives keep their wages seemed likely to save money, especially as the Act made women responsible along with their husbands for the upkeep of their children.

More significant change finally came in 1882, with the second Married Women's Property Act. Wives were now allowed to buy, sell and own property.

'Protection', then, could better be understood as a euphemism for male control over a woman's money. The 'unprotected' woman at whom the book was aimed was one who in reality enoyed a very fundamental protection denied to married women and those financially dependent upon fathers: the ability to control her own property and income so that she could feed and support herself rather than relying on a perhaps cruel, neglectful or feckless man. The infantilising effect of the legal and cultural barriers to female financial independence is apparent from these comments in the Preface:
Ladies rarely have any business to attend to before they attain the age of twenty-one. They are usually older, when, through their father's or their husband's death, they find themselves possessed of money of their own, and are then first called upon to act. They naturally feel shy and awkward, at that time of life, in asking such a simple question as, How am I to draw a Cheque? How should I write to my Banker to send me some money?

Sunday 4 January 2009

Postman's Park (20): fireman George Lee

Modern tabloids have some terrible headlines, but it would be wrong to assume that the print media of the nineteenth century were necessarily more sensitive. One newspaper reported the fire which killed George Lee and another under the title 'FIRE AND LOSS OF LIFE, EXCITING SCENE IN CLERKENWELL'.

However, the events of that July evening in 1876 were certainly dramatic. John Smith, a hatter in St John Street, was in his shop at eight in the evening when he noticed that smoke was coming from the back room. Before he had chance to warn the lodgers upstairs, the fire had cut off access to them and they were trapped.

A wheeled fire-escape machine was brought to the premises. Such fire ladders were originally provided by the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, but were now under the responsibility of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. They could reach up to 60 feet high and had a canvas chute so that people being rescued did not have to descend the ladder rungs. Each ladder was kept locally in a watchbox, accompanied by a fireman who kept watch at night and was responsible for operating the machine if it was needed. The firemen's life was not easy: they lived at the fire station and worked for low wages. Most were ex-seamen as Eyre Massey Shaw, head of the Brigade, valued their training and discipline. One of his advertisements for firemen read:
Candidates for appointment must be seamen; they should be under the age of 25, must measure not less that 37 inches round the chest, and are generally preferred at least 5 feet 5 inches in height. They must be men of general intelligence, and able to read and write; and they have to produce certificates of birth and testimonials as to character, service etc. Each man has to prove his strength by raising a fire escape single handed with the tackle reversed.

After they have been measured, had their strength tested and been approved by the chief officer as stout, strong, healthy looking, intelligent and in all other respects apparently eligible, they are sent for medical examination before the surgeon, who, according to his judgement, either rejects or passes them, in either case giving a certificate.

Two such firemen - one the man responsible for the machine - climbed the fire-escape to the second floor of the St John Street shop and brought one man down. They then rescued a badly-burned woman, but the flames were now threatening the escape itself. A third woman was brought out of the building to the escape, but it was now on fire and its 'chocks' gave way. As a result, it broke into two and the woman, the two fireman and another volunteer fell to the ground. One of the firemen, George Lee, was holding the woman in his arms.

The woman who fell with the escape and her children, aged 17 and 15, were taken to hospital. The charred remains of another woman were found later in the building. The two firemen were also in need of hospital treatment; George Lee would die of his injuries about two weeks later. He had suffered severe burns which were the cause of 'lockjaw'. Lee was buried at Abney Park Cemetery, at a funeral attended by police, firemen and thousands of members of the public. At his inquest Massey Shaw, chief of the Fire Brigade, described his conduct as 'the greatest act of bravery ever shown by a fireman'. His courage is recorded (not entirely accurately) on the Watts Memorial:


For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Friday 2 January 2009

Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curiosities is a regular blog carnival which describes itself as 'show and tell for adults', 'a celebration of the oddities and marvels ... that reside in our personal collections'. The 12th edition is being hosted on Walking the Berkshires and features my own post on lithophanes. There's something of a christmas theme, with curiosities ranging from battered family ornaments and heirloom toastracks to defecating celebrities in Catalonian nativity scenes. Something for everyone!

Thursday 1 January 2009

A new year gift from Big Ben

If you're in Britain, then there's a good chance that you heard the strikes of Big Ben at midnight last night. Relive the moment all year thanks to a free Big Ben ringtone, made available to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the bell: click here.

Happy new year!

Image: clock, Royal Observatory gates.
This clock is unusual both for its 24-hour dial and because it is a slave dial connected electronically to the Royal Observatory's Shepherd master clock. From its position outside the gates, the dial was the first to show Greenwich Mean Time directly to the public. (For more about the Observatory clock, click here).