Wednesday 29 September 2010

Creekside art

Deptford Creek has produced its own artwork: this rather arresting-looking typewriter is among the washed-up objects now displayed outside the Creekside Centre. Contrast it with the deliberately-stranded blue willow china Sue Lawes has placed in the creek itself. Creekery is visible at low tide; these new offerings to the river aim to replace older material removed by mudlarkers. For the rest of this week, low tide falls in the middle of the day (more exact times are here).

If you can get to the Centre tomorrow (Thursday) then you can see the work of Mich Maroney, artist in residence. (She is also part of Childers Street open studios at the weekend.) Her watercolours are based around the idea of a mediaeval book of hours; their deceptively simple abstract forms draw you in with subtle colour and texture. She has also produced a book of Creek photographs, some of which are in her online diary.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

The Semiconductor Archives

This shop is perhaps the most oddly-named in Deptford. Apparently, the business specialises in hard-to-find transistors and other electrical components as well as 'military and industrial obsolete semiconductors'.

I have to admit that my knowledge of semiconductors could be written on the back of a microchip. In marker pen. However, a friend who knows lots about such things helpfully explained to me* that semiconductors are in every electronic device, usually made of silicon, and can be used to create devices including one-way electronic valves, high-speed switching, voltage regulation, LEDs... They can handle extreme voltages and currents and allow good heat dissipation, which is why they are used in producing CPU chips for PCs. Their most common use is in transistors - a microprocessor chip contains thousands of these, each a couple of microns in size. Pretty important then, so (1) I can understand how there would be a specialist market in them; and (2) I feel a bit as if I'd had to ask what electricity or water is used for!

The shopfront makes it difficult to tell whether the shop is still open at all. A clue may be on the door: a year-old notice application for planning permission to redevelop the premises. The planning documents suggest that the premises were already vacant; permission has been granted, so the shopfront may not be with us for much longer.

*Any errors in this summary are, sadly, my own.

Sunday 26 September 2010

From the archives: secrets in plain sight

This 'secret' is still one of my favourite features on New Cross Road. Since I wrote about it in 2008, the Post Office has closed and the shop has gone through several changes. The sign, though, lives on - literally above all the fuss and change.

However often you walk down the same bit of road, and however observant you think you're being, sometimes something can just pass you by. That happened to me on New Cross Road, where this little treasure lurks among the satellite dishes and illuminated signs. It's above the post office at number 405, and it's a tobacco roll.

Back in the days when most people were illiterate, how best to let them know what your shop was selling? With no house numbers, how to make your premises distinctive? The answer was a shop-sign, and we're still familiar with some of these: the striped barber's pole, the pawnbroker's three balls. However, all sorts of shops had them in the past, and many tobacconists would display the tobacco roll. Usually it would be painted brown or black and yellow, which would make it stand out further; the one in New Cross Road has since been repainted in neutral tones.

Today, the sign seems rather mysterious. However, in the past such rolls were common, made of twist tobacco. Leaves were braided into a rope, cured, and sold by weight; you could still buy twist readily 50 years ago. My father remembers it being sold in half-ounce and one-ounce quantities, for chewing or smoking. Miners would chew it and spit it out since smoking wasn't possible in the mines for obvious reasons! It also helped saliva to flow and kept their mouths relatively clear of dust. For smoking, it had to be rubbed between the hands until it broke up into strands. As well as twist, rubbing tobacco was also sold in half- or one-ounce quantities - it came in half-pound sticks about a foot long, marked into half ounces, and could be either chewed or, after rubbing until it came apart, smoked in a pipe.

However, tobacco roll signs vanished from our streets long before twist tobacco. By the late eighteenth century, the growth in literacy and appearance of street numbers saw a decline in the use of shop-signs. They have now all but disappeared, so this inconspicuous feature above a sub-post office is rather special, a rare survivor worth looking up for.

Many thanks to The Industrial Archaeology of South East London, a small book crammed with information, for mentioning this gem! I got my copy from the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society.

Friday 24 September 2010


The small Somerset town of Cheddar is best known for its cheese, but has another great attraction: the caves and gorge. Gough's Cave has been welcoming tourists for well over a century, and even got electric lighting in 1899.

There are plenty of serious reasons to visit the cave, not least its exceptionally long human history. Cheddar Man, Britain's oldest complete skeleton, was found just inside. A few years ago, it was noticed that some scratches on the cave wall were actually a 13,000-year-old picture of a mammoth. (I'm really impressed that this was ever spotted: even with the markings spotlit and explained, they're pretty hard to make out.)

The cave's recent history has its frivolous side. Sea captain Richard Gough retired to Cheddar, where his uncle had opened up another cave, Cox's Cavern. When he discovered his own cave, Gough opened it up to tourists and made his fortune. And no wonder: the cave offers wonderful landscapes including stone 'waterfalls' and tiny 'cities' reflected in rock pools.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Sweet jar

I've featured various Breton specialities in the past, so here are some traditional English sweets. Blackberry and raspberry, peaches and cream, toffee, rhubarb and custard, fizzy fishes...

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Ghost signs (42): Holy ghost signs

Even religious 'advertising' changes with time and produces palimpsests. These panels on the facade of St James', Bermondsey have been overpainted at least once. The first combines 'One Lord. One faith. One baptism' with 'We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus Lord'. On the second, 'One God and father of all' has replaced 'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners'.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Postbox incognito

Postboxes came in many shapes, sizes and colours until some uniformity arrived in the 1880s. One thing almost all did have in common was the royal cypher. However, there were rare exceptions, and I spotted one of these 'anonymous' boxes in Clifton, Bristol.

The cylindrical box we're familiar with today made its appearance in 1879. In 1883, though, a new batch was made in which the 'VR' was accidentally omitted. These were the anonymous boxes - produced until 1887 when the cypher reappeared, never to disappear again. What made them truly anonymous was the omission of the words 'Post Office' too.

There was another flaw in this particular model: the high aperture. Because it was so near the box's cap, mail was liable to get caught up. Later versions had a lower opening - although they didn't immediately correct the anonymity issue!

Monday 20 September 2010

Open House/Open City

I managed to miss this year's Open House weekend, now renamed Open City. However, I'm making some virtual visits and thought I'd invite you along.

Let's start locally and whisk around Deptford with Crosswhatfields. Probably the biggest treat here is the Master Shipwright's House, so it's great to make an extended visit with the Deptford Dame.

Moving into the city centre, IanVisits took in both the Conservative Club in St James - fabulous High Victorian interior - and the Art Deco headquarters of London Underground. Meanwhile, Diamond Geezer has covered some of the outer areas - you didn't make it to Croydon? He did! Then Londonist offer us some quick glimpses of the highlights.

Finally, it's all very well looking around but what's it like to volunteer? Joanna of Westminster Walking takes us behind the scenes and shares her morning at the Linnean Society with us.

Image: Conservative Club interior by IanVisits.

Sunday 19 September 2010

From the archives: Carrington House

When Thankfull Sturdee published a book of Deptford history in 1895, Brookmill Road was still known as Mill Lane and was something of a problem. Despite its rather quiet appearance in Sturdee's photograph, the lane was an overcrowded and disorderly slum. Within a decade, it would have been demolished and Carrington House built in its place.

Carrington House, a former lodging house in Deptford, tells us a lot about the problems facing social reformers in London. I've already mentioned it as the residence of murderer Albert Stratton. It was built on Mill Lane (Brookmill Road) to replace an area of slums and lodging-houses, notorious for their use by criminals and prostitutes. Other local residents included itinerant labourers and beggars; as well as crime, overcrowding was a real problem. Unfortunately, the development of social housing here was hampered by squabbling between official bodies. The London County Council demolished about 50 houses on Mill Lane at the end of the nineteenth century; eight were lodging houses. The law required half of the former residents to be rehoused. How to do that was the topic of protracted arguments between the LCC and Greenwich Board of Works. Carrington House was the LCC's favoured option, while the local Board of Works preferred small cottages for families. The latter were built alongside the lodging house, and named Sylva Cottages. Both completed in 1903, they certainly offer a contrast in scale:

The lodging house was a new departure for the LCC, who had borrowed the idea from six 'Rowton Houses' created by philanthropist Lord Rowton to provide cheap accommodation to working men. The LCC building was named after Lord Carrington, chairman of the LCC's Housing of the Working Classes Committee, and officially opened by the Countess Carrington. Each of the 800 men it could accommodate had their own cubicle to sleep in, and there were also common rooms. Photographs in Harvard University Library show a dining room, reading room and smoking room, all large, tiled spaces with parquet flooring and huge windows, furnished with long tables and benches. The 'lavatory' was a room of bare pipework and rows of washbasins. Despite this careful copying of the Rowton Houses, some early residents soon returned to the nearest Rowton House saying it was 'more homely, more comfortable and warmer'. The LCC's version would never be as popular as the originals. During the First World War, Carrington House was home to refugees. The British Journal of Nursing reported in 1914 that
A large new establishment for the reception of refugees has just been opened at Carrington House, Deptford, and Miss Ravenor, a sister at Chelsea Infirmary, is acting as Matron. Miss Barton has also supplied nurses. The House can accommodate 800. Nurses engaged in the care of refugees are doing invaluable work at the present time.
By the 1920s, the building was once more a lodging house (the LCC's largest). A contributor to Age Exchange's Library of Experience remembers its residents pouring the contents of their pots over the fascist Moseley and his supporters as they marched down the road before the war. In sad contrast, its inhabitants in 1949 included a number of black seamen who faced a racist mob on 18 July. Carrying knives in self-defence, they rather than their 600 attackers were arrested. Today, the lodging house has been converted into flats and renamed Mereton Mansions.

Friday 17 September 2010


It's Open House Weekend, but I won't be posting about it. With typical organisation, I managed to plan a trip away for one of my favourite London weekends! I'm not complaining though, because I'm going to another interesting city. On my last visit, I just changed trains there and took the photo above...

Thursday 16 September 2010

Thankfull Sturdee

Born in Evelyn Street, Deptford, Thankfull Sturdee would remain interested in the town's history all his life. He is the author of Reminiscences of Old Deptford, published in 1895, which includes his own photographs as well as reproductions of older drawings and engravings. It's even more fascinating for the modern reader, as many of his contemporary images show scenes and buildings now disappeared.

Sturdee left his negatives and sets of prints to Deptford Library (they are now at Lewisham Library). However, outside Deptford he is better known as a photographer. He gave his profession as such in the 1881 census, when he was 29, and had studios in Deptford until 1910. In 1911, he became press photographer for the Daily Mirror. He retired in 1922 and died in 1934.

The first news photographs were taken in the 1850s, but had to be engraved for publication. It wasn't until the 1880s that newspapers could reproduce the photographs themselves. Technical issues remained, and on its relaunch in 1904 the Mirror was the first British daily newspaper to use photographs. Sturdee was, then, still something of a pioneer when he joined the newspaper in 1911.

I've found a copy of Sturdee's Reminiscences, so a few of his photographs will be appearing on the blog soon.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

More Horlicks

Last week I visited the Horlicks factory in Slough; today, let's look into the contents of that soothing drink itself. For over a century, it has been promising us a good night's sleep, but what does it actually contain?

Horlicks has its origins in James Horlick's work with the Mellin Company, who made baby food using a drying and concentrating process. Dried malt and bran was sold ready to be mixed with milk and water and fed to baby. Keen to market a new drink based on this process, James joined his brother William in the United States and founded Horlicks.

The consumer originally had to make up Horlicks Food with sterile milk, but it occurred to the brothers that if the milk was included in the dried mixture then it need only be mixed with hot water. Thus Horlicks was born, originally marketed as a complete food for babies and invalids. Its name was changed to Horlicks Malted Milk, although in the 1930s it would become simply Horlicks.

There is one further twist in the story of the Horlicks formula. Since 1960, the drink has been manufactured in India - where buffalo milk is used in place of the original cows' milk.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Next collection now

This postbox on Tooley Street seemed to be making a promise it couldn't keep!

Monday 13 September 2010

Thames Festival

This year's Thames Festival was a rather mixed experience. On Saturday, I enjoyed visiting the eastern end where stalls showcased various organisations connected to the Thames, its history and ecology. However, on Sunday the western sections proved a disappointment with too many people crowded around commercial stalls with no obvious river connection.

It was Saturday's visit, then, that yielded some rather interesting finds. First, London SHIPS is a partnership of historic ships in the city. As well as some obvious ones including HMS Belfast and Cutty Sark, they include less-familiar ones such as the Fire Brigade's ship and Dunkirk 'little boat' the Massey Shaw. Explore further with their free walking guide.

Second, the discharge of raw sewage into the Thames has been in the news over recent months. The city's Victorian sewers are a combined system: storm water and sewage end up in the same drains, which means that in very bad weather they get overwhelmed and their contents end up pouring untreated into the river. Thames Water have an ambitious solution, a giant tunnel under the Thames which can take this excess water and allow it to flow safely out of the city without polluting the river. Consultation on the scheme has just opened; you can find out more and complete the online questionnaire here.

Sunday 12 September 2010

From the archives: R Trickett, Deptford High Street

Some of the best advice for exploring London is 'look up'. Above some fairly ordinary shops in Deptford, an ornate sign is a tangible reminder of a prosperous past.

There are many ways to describe the shops on Deptford High Street - they're diverse, interesting, varied - but 'grand' probably wouldn't spring to mind. However, if you look above street-level, there are clues that some stores were rather more majestic in the past. In particular, the sign for Trickett & Co is rather fetching.

Although the current sign is dated 1889, the shop itself was older: see a picture of it in 1850 here. The new frontage dates from an expansion which saw it triple in size, from occupying 10 Deptford High Street alone to numbers 8-12.

What did it sell? The full title was Tea, Coffee & Colonial Merchant; there was also a wholesale warehouse in Deptford Church Street. To judge by the 1850 advertisement, the store did a lively delivery trade. It offered not only tea and coffee but also Huntley & Palmer's biscuits to go with them as well as 'foreign fruits, pickles, sauces'. Just the sort of fancy food that central London department store Gamages offered in its 1914 catalogue, too.

In 1862, a theft from Trickett's ended with an Old Bailey prosecution. The proceedings give some idea of the value of the stock: Lewis Lyons was accused of stealing a horse and a cart containing 111 pounds of tea, which Mr Trickett valued at £21 (several thousand pounds at today's values). We can also see that being the boss's son was no guarantee of an easy life, since the boy was working with his father and was even left in charge of the horse and cart, although he was only 10 years old. (He was also naive enough to be decoyed away by a fake message from his father - his evidence doesn't record how Mr Trickett reacted). The 18-year-old Lyons was convicted and sentenced to four years' penal servitude.

Friday 10 September 2010

Horlicks: no night starvation in Slough

Slough, west of London, isn't really thought of as a heritage hotspot. Its reputation was hardly helped by the Betjeman poem which begins, 'Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!' However, the Heritage Open Days this weekend highlight places worth seeing in this maligned town, not least the Horlicks factory which opened to the public for the first time today. I was lucky enough to join one of the tours.

Horlicks has something of an Anglo-American heritage, although its biggest market today is India. The drink was first produced in the USA by two English brothers, William and James Horlick, in 1873. By the 1890s James had established an office in London, and the Slough factory was opened in 1908.

Initially the drink was targeted at infants (it's no longer recommended as a baby food), but by the early twentieth century it had found a new market. Compact, nutritious, and made using only water rather than hot milk, it was popular with arctic and antarctic explorers. However, its 1930s advertising campaign really shaped perceptions of the drink: promising to stave off 'night starvation', it firmly associated Horlicks with a good night's sleep.

The company boardroom dates from that same period, and has wonderful Art Deco features. My very favourite was the fireplace with inbuilt clock and calendar (the numbers for day and month, on glass, are stored in a box just behind the display). The ceiling is pretty stylish too.

The furniture was made by Robert Thompson, famous for including a mouse on every piece. The chairs also bear other decoration including the Horlicks arms - appropriately enough, they include a cow and a sheaf of grain.

Both boardroom and archives are treasure troves of old products and packaging, as well as photographs and other memorabilia. Among the most evocative were the staff magazines.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Deptford Station, 1880s

At the start of her book Tenant Friends in Old Deptford, Ellen Chase describes the scene at the station:
No matter how often one might run down the stairway of the South-Eastern and Greenwich Railroad at Deptford, he coud not fail to be struck each time by the motley crowd of people jostling along the Main Street which leads from the Broadway towards the Foreign Cattle Market and the Royal Victoria Victualling Yards. There were tottering, grey-headed old pensioners with gilt buttons to their reefers; pinched, careworn women in rusty, ragged black; overdressed, boisterous girls amusing themselves by giggling and chafing with strangers; smart young red-coats swinging along in couples; and groups of rough hearty sailors from the cattle-steamers, shoving and rolicking along the crowded sidewalks, carrying all before them. And there were generally pedlars and beggars of one kind and another, women selling jumping-jacks from trays hanging about their necks; and in their season, men hawking primrose-roots from baskets, or rabbits dangling from the end of a stick. Here would be a vendor of whirligigs, there a mender of old umbrellas, or perhaps a blind bugler, or a couple of gaily kerchiefed Italian women with cages of fortune-telling canaries set above their rattling hand-organs. To add to the din, the noisy salesmen of the rival butchers' shops, "touting" for customers, shout out at the top of their lungs: "What'll you buy, buy, buy? What do you want, my dears? Lovely steak! lovely chops! What'll you buy? What'll you buy, buy, buy?"

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Historic postboxes

As regular readers will have noticed, I do enjoy a nice bit of postal heritage. It's even better when combined with other forms of heritage. These well-located postboxes are in Cambridge - note the water flowing in an open conduit alongside the Trumpington Street box; this was part of the original water supply to the town centre.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Chateau de la Hunaudaye

When I first visited France as a child, the phrasebook I carried with me was full of hidden dangers (although very useful for ordering ice creams). Following its advice to summon waiters by snapping my fingers and shouting garcon! would probably have resulted in some, ahem, interesting meals. Its claim that 'chateau' translated as 'castle' was less perilous but not much less misleading.

Most French chateaux are fancy country houses - often beautiful, but not a 'castle' in the English sense. However, the Chateau de la Hunaudaye is a proper fortified castle, complete with a moat full of water and plenty of towers. It has recently reopened after major conservation works, which have done a great job of making it safe to explore (as long as you like stairs and heights - there are five towers) without losing its atmosphere.

The castle was built in 1220 and remained in the ownership of the Tournemine family until the 17th century. They were eventful years for both building and people: the castle was destroyed and rebuilt in the fourteenth century; the family became powerful barons; their lands became more and more extensive. That's reflected in the castle, which offered a range of accommodation from luxurious seigneurial appartments to unpleasant cells.

Why had the family chosen to build here, though? Today, it's a quiet location with no obvious strategic significance. However, in the middle ages it was on the boundary between the Dinan and Lamballe regions. Since Brittany was a rather fractious place, with various would-be rulers fighting for power and the French keeping a greedy eye on the area, the frontier between two regions was liable to take on military and political signficance.

By the seventeenth century Brittany was part of France and the castle was allowed to decline. When the area became one of conflict again, during the Revolution, the castle was damaged and burned. It then became a handy source of stone for local people.

The process of decay was finally stopped in 1930 when the state bought the castle. Today it is battered but proud, welcoming the visitors it once repulsed.

Monday 6 September 2010

Story of London II

The Story of London festival is back for a second year, running from 1-10 October. It's later and smaller than last year, and continues to include a number of events which would happen anyway. The website hasn't really improved either, so it's not as easy as it should be to explore the events, but here are a few highlights.

On Friday 1 October, you can visit a new gallery exploring Dagenham Dock at the Valence House Museum, Dagenham before taking a tour of the working dock. If I didn't have to be at work, I'd be at Docking at Dagenham. After work, though, there's a chance to explore the Museum of London at a late-night opening.

Ever wondered what London's pre-Bazalgette miasma smelled like? Sensible people may prefer not to know, but for everyone else there are guided walks from 2 October onwards which include scratch-and-sniff cards so you can smell 'London without Bazalgette'. I'm not sure how a two-hour walk taking in Embankment and Soho can also feature the Crossness Pumping Station, but it otherwise looks like an interesting approach to sewage history. You can really visit Crossness on 3 October with a behind-the-scenes tour of its current restoration.

A more sophisticated - and fragrant - tour of the Burlington Arcade is available on various dates, led by the Head Beadle. As I'm fascinated by shopping arcades, I hope not to miss this! At the other end of the social scale is a guided tour of East End social housing on 5 October. There's more of the reforming spirit in an evening celebrating Florence Nightingale's work as a statistician on 7 October, exploring her London life through talks and an exhibition.

309 Regent Street, the heart of the University of Westminster, is an important site in the history of education. Founded in 1838, it offered exhibitions, lectures, laboratories and activities on the frivolous end of the educational scale such as rides in a diving bell. The theatre was also at the heart of cinema and pre-cinema, famed for its magic lantern shows and later the country's first display of moving pictures. Take a free tour exploring all this history on 2 October.

On Monday 4, there's a lunchtime lecture at City Hall by Philip Davies, author of Lost London, about the city's transformation between 1870 and 1940. There's also an accompanying exhibition of 'carefully selected images from the book'. Which is much nicer than randomly-selected ones, of course.

Deptford features in a walk From Deptford to the Flood Barrier. More local events include a talk on the architecture of Greenwich, a walk around the archaeology of Greenwich Park, a Meantime Brewery tour and an Old Brewery beer masterclass.

After laboriously searching through the events, I found that IanVisits has produced a similar list of highlights! More importantly, his map and spreadsheet make it much easier to pick out some highlights of your own. Perhaps the organisers could take note?

Sunday 5 September 2010

From the archives: A Thames Tale

Last year, I 'serialised' a lovely story told in ceramic plaques on the Greenwich riverfront. I noted in the article that the website is no longer running. There's good news: the artist, Amanda Hinge, has now revived the website herself (view it here).

Amanda was a recent graduate when she produced this work in 2000, and spent much of the following decade teaching. However, she is now accepting commissions again so perhaps we'll see more of her work in the area!

We begin with a message in a cola can, and I've added links at the bottom to the later episodes.

On a brick wall down by the river at Greenwich is a lovely artwork: the illustrated Thames Tale by Amanda Hinge. As the Greenwich Phantom has pointed out, it's a little mysterious - all the more so since the website address on the wall no longer works - but very charming.

I'm off to Lille for the next few days, so while I'm gone the Thames Tale will unfold right here. This slight, whimsical story begins with a message in a cola can...

Read on: chapter two; chapter three; chapter four.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Cambridge time and money

Cambridge is famous for its colleges and ancient buildings, but there is of course much more to be seen. I rather liked two examples of Victorian banks. The first is fabulously stripy: perhaps the stern lettering over the door is intended to offset the surrounding frivolity.

The second bank, for all its sturdiness, has a similarly fanciful feel with its trefoil arches and carved detail.

Today it is part of Corpus Christi College, and set into the ground floor is an intriguing piece of public art. The clock, unveiled in 2008, is the work of horologist and college alumnus John C Taylor and is extraordinary.

The 'face' is a trio of golden rings, one each for hours, minutes and seconds. Moving time forward is a sort of cyberpunk grasshopper, the chronopage or 'time eater'. (This is a deliberate tribute to John Harrison's grasshopper escapement for converting pendulum motion into rotational motion.) It moves the face and pendulum erratically, so that time does not move forward smoothly but speeds and slows: the clock is accurate only once every five minutes. On the hour, a chain falls into a wooden coffin.

As if such reminders of our mortality were not enough, engraved in the stone below the clock is mundus transit et concupiscentia eius: the world passes, and its desires with it.