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.

Thursday 19 November 2009

London, 1927 - in colour

This extraordinary film of London over 80 years ago was produced by Claude Friese-Green using his biocolour process. It was the last episode of a trip around Britain, filmed using alternate red and green filters. The frames of black-and-white film thus exposed were then stained red and green. The flickering this method caused has largely been removed by the BFI, but some red and green fringing is noticeable.

Look out for the variety of vehicles, the sheer number of traffic policemen, a soot-stained Nelson's Column and a very unappetising bag of peanuts! (Although I'm rather taken with the idea of counting them as a fruit.)

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Ikarus 66

There was an unusual visitor to Covent Garden over the weekend of 6 November: an Ikarus 66 bus from Hungary. It was here to celebrate the Hungarian Cultural Centre's tenth anniversary.

This rear-engined 'rocket' bus was apparently the pride of 1960s public transport in Hungary. Ikarus, founded in Budapest in 1895, initially concentrated upon building cars but its first large order for buses came in 1927. During the 1950s and 1960s it exported throughout Eastern Europe as well as to Egypt, China and Burma. Although sales fell after the collapse of communism, the company survives: in 1999 Ikarus was bought by a French-Italian investment group, before returning to Hungarian ownership in 2006. It is now expanding its sales into South America.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Bull Inn Court

Among the alleyways leading north from the Strand is Bull Inn Court. Here since the 17th century (although the Bull Inn has long gone), it's a handy short cut to Maiden Lane. What make it stand out from its neighbours are the tiled signs at its southern end.

They point the way to the Adelphi Theatre gallery entrance and the Nell Gwynne Tavern. Both entertainment venues came under the same ownership in 1887, when the Adelphi's owners Agostino and Stefano Gatti bought neighbouring premises in order to enlarge the theatre.

The Adelphi was home to melodrama - and not only on stage. William Terris, who regularly played the hero in these productions, was murdered one night in 1897 while entering the theatre from Maiden Lane. His killer was a rather less successful actor, Richard Archer Prince, whom he had had to sack years earlier due to Prince's heavy drinking. Motivated by a combination of mental illness, jealousy and a belief that Terris was in some way responsible for his inability to find work or financial help, Prince stabbed Terris. He was convicted of murder and sent to Broadmoor (where he did manage to produce and act in plays). Terris's last words were reported to be 'I'll be back,' and it is claimed that he haunts the local area.

The Adelphi was rebuilt in 1930 with a fashionably modern facade. The style of these tiles suggests that they are somewhat older, surviving from its previous incarnation.

Sunday 15 November 2009

Christmas lights (1)

It's that time of year again. Yes, Christmas may be well over a month away but many of the city's lights are on already. As usual, the area around Oxford Circus was among the first to switch on.

Regent Street has mainly stuck with last year's belly-flop stars, but Oxford Street has used the Disney sponsorship money to pay for some new lightbulbs. As a result, the view east of the Circus is enchanting - but look west, and the street has become a giant advertisement.

Carnaby Street has, as usual, gone for something a little more original. The bright colours and sixties-homage designs are certainly fun, but even with inflatable reindeer the scheme is perhaps not all that seasonal. Mind you, when the season is this long...

Friday 13 November 2009

Deptford Lift Bridge

This old postcard, issued by the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway, shows
Deptford "Lift" Bridge (about half-a-mile from New Cross Station) carrying the Deptford Wharf Branch line over the Grand Surrey Canal. The Bridge is 13 feet wide with a span of 31 feet 6 inches between the vertical cast-iron standards. It is raised to a height of 10 feet by means of chain and wheel gearing worked by hand power for the passage of barges using the canal.
Both branch line and canal are now gone - although it's hard to imagine such a hand-powered bridge surviving into the current era in any event.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Farming the poor

The question of how to control state welfare spending is not a new one. The Poor Laws of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to place responsibility upon individual parishes, most notoriously by requiring them to operate a workhouse. One way of managing this duty was to engage in 'farming the poor'.

The terminology is odd and might suggest growing more poor people, in large greenhouses perhaps - but like baby-farming (fostering for profit) later in the century, the practice was less bucolic and more exploitative. Contractors looked after a parish's workhouse poor for a fixed sum, often arrived at by competitive tendering, and had to both provide for their 'clients' and make a profit from the agreed amount. To help them achieve this, they were able to require the paupers to work and could keep the proceeds of their labour.

St Nicholas, Deptford was among the parishes to attempt the system. Thus an advertisement of 1830 is headed 'CONTRACT for FARMING the POOR of SAINT NICHOLAS, DEPTFORD'. The parish sought a contractor who would take the parish's poor for up to three years; they had to provide sealed tenders accompanied by two sureties for the due performance of the contract. It can't have been the most tempting proposition unless there was the prospect of a good profit - one suspects that Deptford's poor spent the following years in very straitened conditions.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Beer with bite

Sorry, but this is even less appetising than the idea of beer from coal! In July 1826, it was reported that
At the Deptford Bench of Justices, on Saturday last, James Waterman, a common brewer at that place, was convicted in the penalty of £100 for having unlawfully in his possession the following articles: Vitriol, liquorice, gentian, honey, salt of tartar, and carbonate of soda. The production of the above ingredients, especially the first, excited a very strong feeling in every one present. The magistrates, E. G. Barnard, Robert Admonds, and George Evelyn, Esqs. severely reproved the defendant.
One can understand the strong feeling: vitriol is better known as sulphuric acid. The crime of vitriol-throwing was known and feared by the Victorians - Sherlock Holmes witnessed it in The Adventure of the Illustrious Client - since the acid was corrosive enough to severely injur and scar. It's difficult, then, to imagine that a drink thus 'enhanced' would be very good for the digestion.

However, the addition of vitriol to beer was not unknown. It gave a bitter taste and thus reduced the need for more expensive hops. Combined with alum and salt, it apparently improved the head on porter and was generally used alongside molasses and gentian to imitate porter's distinctive taste - a handy way of making watered-down beer more appetising.

Food adulteration was rife for much of the nineteenth century, and apparently many Londoners even developed a taste for these products. Ordinary beer just wasn't bitter enough for them!

Image: brewery museum, Greene King, who make delicious and vitriol-free beer.

Monday 9 November 2009

Magic lantern magic!

On Saturday the British Library held a day of events to accompany its excellent Points of View exhibition, including a magic lantern show. With my enthusiasm for period entertainments, I booked a ticket right away!

'Professor' Mervyn Heard is a leading researcher and collector of magic lantern slides and brings them to life with the essential element of showmanship. Forget watching endless 35mm slides of other people's holidays - magic lantern shows were very different. They included impressive elements of movement, both within the slide itself and by moving between slides. The scenes were, crucially, accompanied by the showman's patter. In other words, they offered a performance (even the temperance movement, with its dry reputation, produced slides telling comic stories).

Prof Heard recreates the experience not only by using original slides from the eighteenth century onwards but also by accompanying them with the stories, jokes, interaction and information which made the original shows so popular for so long. Although we think of them as a quintessentially Victorian entertainment, they date back much further (Samuel Pepys watched a show in 1666) and the earliest slides we saw were from the eighteenth century. People travelled the country carrying their lanterns and collections of slides, putting on shows as they went.

As the nineteenth century progressed these contraptions grew in popularity and became a staple for organisations such as missionary groups, temperance societies, workers' institutes and others - as well as making their way into homes. Alongside this, an industry grew up producing slides on a wide range of themes from optical illusions to scenic views around the world.

The magic lantern's popularity declined in the twentieth century, in part overtaken by cinema. However, Prof Heard's show enables us to appreciate film's predecessor and its own capacity for creating lively, animated scenes.

Further information
There will be a longer show at the British Library on Sunday 29 November; Prof Heard is also giving an illustrated lecture on 'Phantasmagoria-mania' at the Old Cinema, University of Westminster this Thursday.

Points of View is a free exhibition exploring nineteenth-century photography. Highlights include original Fox-Talbot negatives and prints, along with innumerable other innovations and images from around the world, all placed in their wider context. It runs until 7 March 2010.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Woolworths, New Cross

At 12.44pm, Saturday 25 November 1944, Britain's worst V2 attack struck New Cross destroying the Woolworths store as well as badly damaging the neighbouring Co-op. 168 people were killed, 122 injured.

Unusually fine weather had ensured that plenty of people were out shopping that lunchtime, while workers from the neighbouring railway station and children returning from the swimming baths had gone into the store for a drink. Some accounts suggest that there had been a rare delivery of saucepans to Woolworths that day.

There was no warning before the rocket landed on the centre of Woolworths' roof. After a moment of silence the walls bowed, the building collapsed and exploded, and then caught fire. An army lorry was overturned and a double-decker bus spun round by the force of the blast. Rescuers, members of the emergency services and local people, worked to lift the rubble by hand but there was only one survivor. It took three days to clear the debris, which reached as far as Deptford town hall. Tony Rollins, then 13, has shared his recollections on the BBC website:
Sheets of corrugated steel had been placed along some of the gutters to cover what was left of people and blood was seeping out from beneath.There was debris everywhere.I saw several people dead beneath telegraph poles and there were bodies and wounded and maimed laying randomly all over the place.

Everybody who could was roped in to help clear debris and I did what I was asked to give a hand.
The site of the bombing is now occupied by Iceland and New Cross Library. A small plaque on Iceland's wall marks the disaster, while the memorial on Woolworths' own website is archived here. As well as the image above, it includes a full list of the names of those killed. Perhaps the saddest part of this is the final line: and 24 others who could not be identified.

Last year's Remembrance Sunday post is here; Colin Blythe, Deptford cricketer, was killed in World War One.

Saturday 7 November 2009

Changes at Convoy's Wharf

Thanks to Deptford Dame for highlighting this article on the Convoy's Wharf redevelopment. It seems that after a long pause, the scheme should soon restart - but with 'minor amendments' and a new architect. The changed plans will have to be approved by the Mayor of London; there's no hint in the article of what the changes are.

Friday 6 November 2009

Beer from coal

This 1959 film doesn't really feature some petrochemical brew - and barely enough mention of coal at the beginning and end to justify its inclusion in 'Mining Review 12th year no 10' - but does show scenes of pub life and the Charrington Brewery in Mile End Road, London.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Where am I?

Where can this bird be found? And for bonus points, what bird is it?

(As ever, click the picture to enlarge.)

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Ghost signs (27): let's dance

Take the Hammersmith & City line to its western terminus, and your train will pull up alongside this fabulous ghost sign. It's on the back wall of the Hammersmith Palais, formerly the Palais de Dance. Opened in 1919, the Palais gradually changed its emphasis from dancing to live music after the Second World War.

You can't dance there any more, as the Palais closed in 2007; dispossessed, the women on our sign have faded to a truly ghostly appearance. However, you can still ponder the now-hypothetical choice between dancing the evening away for five shillings, or enjoying the cheaper afternoon rate of half a crown.

Monday 2 November 2009

Demolition in Deptford, 1839

Before the regular police force was established, watchmen took responsibility for law and order. They were paid a modest wage, and could also earn rewards for catching criminals. Rather than being a centralised force, they were under the control of each parish. Those in Saint Paul's Deptford had a watch house, useful as a place to lock up wrongdoers until they could be dealt with. However, the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 meant the transfer of policing from local watchmen to the new London-wide force, and it seems that the parish then decided to dispose of the building.

To get an idea of what the watch house was like, one of our best sources is in fact the information produced preparatory to its demolition. Cleverly, the building's fabric was auctioned off - not only did this raise money, but the requirement that the materials be removed in three days was a clever way of getting the building demolished.

The list of lots suggests a very sturdy building with plenty of oak, stone and ironwork:
  1. Fifty feet run of stoat oak open fencing, with 12 do. strong posts
  2. The whole of the stone coping on top of building, with do. on chimney
  3. The whole of the slate roofing, with boarding rafters, and plates under do.
  4. Strong oak ceiling under rafters, with iron-work attached.
  5. Four stone window cills, with 2 do. steps, stone stringing round building, tablet, and hearth.
  6. Four window frames with strong iron bars, shutter, & c.
  7. Three strong iron bound doors, with frames and locks
  8. The stout oak floor, with the whole of the double and single lining, benches, quarters, and iron bound round interior of building
  9. The whole of the brick-work, including chimney of building
  10. All the lead on building, at per cwt.
Image from Myths & Legends.

Sunday 1 November 2009

London to Brighton Veteran Car Run

It may be stood on a taxi rank, but this is not a new design for London taxis! Rather, it's one of a surprisingly large number of very elderly cars making the journey from London to Brighton today - yesterday, there was chance to enjoy seeing them parked along Regent Street.

All pre-1905, they were commemorating a special event in British motoring history: the Emancipation Run which celebrated the passing of the Locomotives on the Highway Act 1896. Before the Act was passed, cars were restricted by a speed limit of 4mph and - even more restrictively - the need to be preceded by a man walking with a red flag. The law had been targeted at steam traction engines, but a test case in 1895 had confirmed that cars were treated as locomotives rather than (horseless) carriages. A campaign for reform met with reasonably prompt success, and vehicles under three tons were exempted from the restrictions. Now, they could speed across the country at a racy 14mph. How better to celebrate than with a trip to the seaside?

The original London to Brighton run is recreated annually, preceded by the Saturday show. A mixture of Regent Street shoppers and vintage car enthusiasts crowded around these fascinating vehicles. Given the number of people, it made sense to photograph details rather than 'portraits' of the cars. I particularly like the diversity of designs - the steering wheel, for example, had not yet become standard - and the features clearly borrowed from the horse-drawn carriages these cars would eventually replace.