Friday 31 December 2010

Deptford and rhubarb

I've looked in the past at Brockley's history as a centre of rhubarb-growing, but made only passing reference to Joseph Myatt. However, his role in the introduction of rhubarb as a food is worth a little more attention. Henry Mayhew tells the story in London Labour and the London Poor:
I allude to those gardeners who have improved or introduced our every day vegetables or fruit, such as now form the cheapest and most grateful and healthy enjoyments of the humbler portion of the community. I may instance the introduction of rhubarb, which was comparatively unknown until Mr. Myatt, now of Deptford, cultivated it thirty years ago. He then, for the first time, carried seven bundles of rhubarb into the Borough market. Of these he could sell only three, and he took four back with him. Mr. Myatt could not recollect the price he received for the first rhubarb he ever sold in public, but he told me that the stalks were only about half the substance of those he now produces. People laughed at him for offering "physic pies," but he persevered, and I have shown what the sale of rhubarb now is.
Rhubarb had been known before this, of course, but not really as a food. Rather, it was used as a medicine: its roots were a popular laxative. However, it found a canny champion in Joseph Myatt of Manor Farm (on what is now Breakspear Road). He introduced a variety called Victoria in the coronation year, followed later by Prince Albert: a clever bit of marketing. He not only launched a local speciality, but changed our meals (especially school dinners!) for good.

Thursday 30 December 2010

Ghost signs (44): and save money

Advertising hoardings are both a blessing and a curse for ghost sign enthusiasts. On the one hand, they cover and protect painted adverts which would otherwise fade and wear away. On the other, because they so often share a site, the new hoardings can obscure older brick ads.

Probably the most frustrating situation is where a new hoarding allows the edges of an older image to peek out from behind, a tantalising taste of what's hidden. That's what has happened to this sign in Lewisham: all that is visible is the final inducement. Choose whatever product, gain whatever advantages, 'and save money'!

Wednesday 29 December 2010

West India Dock

Today I visited the Museum of Docklands' exhibition on the Sidney Street Siege. Coming out, both night and fog were falling over the skyscrapers. There may have been no comparison to London's historic pea-soupers, but it was atmospheric all the same.

As for the exhibition, aside from a few quibbles (the order was a little odd, with the story beginning at the opposite end of the room to the entrance) it is rather good. Particularly fascinating are the exhibits, which include police evidence envelopes containing bullets; a hat and ammunition belt found in the house; and several guns used by the revolutionaries. There's also contemporary newsreel with scenes of Winston Churcill chatting with the police - a few cases away, his overcoat is on show. The Museum is still hoping to track down the top hat he also wore, possibly with bullet-hole.

The exhibition runs until April and admission is free. For added atmosphere, go on a foggy day...

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Strange bigamy

Minnie Langford, a 30-year-old laundress living at 151 Creek Road, Deptford, married police constable John Alfred Ellis on 24 January 1889. That might sound like a pretty ordinary event, but there were two problems: first, Minnie was already married, a detail which saw her brought before Greenwich Police Court in January 1890. However, in her defence she raised a second issue: John was her nephew, they had never cohabited, and her sister had 'made her do it'. (The marriage would therefore not be legal and thus, arguably, no bigamy would have been committed.)

That defence raised more questions than it answered. Why did Minnie marry her nephew if they had no intention of sleeping together (they already lived in the same house)? Why would he, as a police officer, want to venture into such legally dubious territory? There were no answers at her first appearance before the court, but Inspector Phillips raised a new set of problems: Minnie had given a false name and false personal details on the marriage certificate.

At a later hearing, matters hadn't become a lot clearer. Minnie continued to say that she had married at her sister's behest; her 'husband' was now a co-defendant, charged with aiding and abetting her. He said, 'It was mother's fault. It was done as she was in debt, and I did it to get her out of a difficulty.'

Information continued to leak out at the next magistrates' court hearing: reports noted that the charge had been brought by Minnie's sister, the supposed inciter of the marriage. Further, John Ellis 'had made a report on his marriage for submission to the superintendent' but it was not admissible evidence in court, because it had been made under duress.

Sadly, the records never give us a full explanation. When Minnie and John were tried at the Old Bailey, they pleaded guilty. As a result, no further evidence was heard. (More may have been said in mitigation, but if so that is not recorded.) Minnie was sentenced to six months' imprisonment with hard labour, John to four.

Monday 27 December 2010

A Souvenir of London (3)

If you've been to London's West End for the sales, you probably won't find much familiar in this scene - but it depicts Oxford Street. However, before we're too quick to assume that Edwardian shoppers enjoyed a more civilised experience, a closer look shows that the pavements are thronged with people.

The number 272 visible on the left-hand building confirms the precise location: it's 272 Regent Street, on Oxford Circus. We're stood in the middle of the Circus looking east, towards the Waring and Gillow furniture store - and a Willesden bus is about to run us down! Waring and Gillow's shop had opened here in 1764; today it's a branch of H&M.

For comparison, here's a snap of the same scene yesterday. (I took it from inside the bus, being more of a coward than our intrepid Edwardian photographer.)

Sunday 26 December 2010

From the archives: Somerset and the Abode of Love

When I found this postcard of the Agapemone in Somerset, the message on the back confirmed the general interest excited by this small sect. 'Have driven past Abode many times. But never able to go inside. It is very pretty', May wrote to her friend. Almost forgotten now, the scandal of the mysterious walled Abode of Love intrigued the Victorians and lingered for decades.

Near Bridgwater is the quiet and apparently respectable Quantock village of Spaxton. There is little today to suggest that for over eighty years it was home to a controversial sect, the Agapemonites, and their Abode of Love.

The Rev H J Prince had already been thrown out of several parishes for his inappropriate behaviour, and declared himself the son of god in Weymouth, before he settled in Spaxton. He and his followers built Agapemone, the Abode of Love: a secretive building surrounded by high walls and patrolled by dogs. Within its perimeter, the followers were mainly female - and those women tended to be rich or beautiful. He proved adept at getting his hands on their money, either directly or by arranging their marriages to male followers. Prince claimed that he was the Holy Ghost, whose duty was to bring heavenly love to earth and to 'purify' virgins. However, when he had sex with 16-year-old virgin Zoe Patterson on the altar in front of his followers, some left the cult and scandal arose. The child of this rape was called Eve, and condemned by Prince as a devil child rather than his own progeny.

Prince had already weathered one scandal: having married off three of the wealthy Nottidge sisters, he planned to do the same for a fourth, Louisa. Her two brothers broke into the Agapemone to 'rescue' her - by removing her to a lunatic asylum. It took Prince 18 months to find her, but when he did he got her released by having the Commissioners of Lunacy declare her sane. At that point she returned to Spaxton and turned her inheritance over to Prince.

When Prince died in 1899 (so much for his supposed immortality!), the Rev John Hugh Smyth-Piggott took over. He showed a similar enthusiasm for women, recruiting 50 to the sect and taking one as his 'spiritual wife' and having three children with her. Eve, Prince's daughter, was by now also a senior member of the Agapemone. Even after its second leader's death in 1927, the sect managed to continue under Smyth-Piggott's wife, Ruth Anne Preece. She lived until she was 90; only after her death in 1956 did the Agapemone finally close.

Friday 24 December 2010


Crackers aren't part of Christmas tradition in France. Instead, many festive place settings include a papillote - a brightly-wrapped chocolate. Take off the wrapper, and inside is a quotation or riddle, along with the sweet.

Like other delicious confections, the papillote originated in Lyon and it remains particularly popular there. Legend has it that a confectioner's apprentice tried to charm his girlfriend by sending her little messages wrapped around sweets. When his boss - a Mr Papillote, of course - found out what the youngster was doing, he took up the idea and the papillote was born.

In some versions of the story, the apprentice was sacked all the same. However, in the spirit of the season, let's assume a happier ending. Season's greetings!

Wednesday 22 December 2010

A Souvenir of London (2)

St Paul's Cathedral obviously doesn't change much over time, but in this Edwardian view there is one striking difference: the colour. While the top half of the building is much as we know it today, the lower part is dark presumably with dirt and pollution. Otherwise, the most notable feature is the absence of people: perhaps the photographer, like IanVisits, took advantage of the quiet of Christmas day.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

A Souvenir of London (1)

In my youth, the favourite pictorial souvenir was a set of postcard views, which less than conveniently unfolded into a single long strip. However, I found a more elegant version from the more distant past: a souvenir album with photographic scenes pasted in. It's undated, but the vehicles in its scenes suggest it may be Edwardian.

I'll be sharing a selection of the views, beginning today with London Bridge. It is of course the 'new' London Bridge opened in 1831. When the current bridge replaced it in 1973, this one moved across the Atlantic to Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

This scene not only showcases the bridge, but also has a nice mixture of horse-drawn and motorised transport. You can just make out the pedestrians in their rather fine hats, too! (As usual, click the image to enlarge.)

Monday 20 December 2010

Snowed in?

If you're snowed in, or just avoiding the icy roads and freezing weather, here are some ideas for passing your time. (Readers lucky enough to have more temperate weather might enjoy these all the same.)

Saturday 18 December 2010

Quantocks snow

Last year, I brought you photographs of Deptford in the snow; for a complete change of location this year, here are some lovely Quantock scenes taken by Shaun Derry.

From the archives: Postman's Park, death in the frost

This story from the Watts Memorial in Postman's Park is a timely warning of the dangers of the season. It's also a way of reminding ourselves that however icy the weather, it could be much worse. Sit comfortably with a warm drink and read on.

The cold weather of February 1895 became known simply as the Frost. The Illustrated Police News described it as 'terribly severe', asking 'what must be the intense suffering of those who are poor and out of work?' Temperatures of -24C were recorded in Buxton; the Thames froze over, with ice floes six or seven feet deep in places. Barges and smaller boats were trapped in the ice, leaving watermen and port workers without employment. Many people died of hypothermia, while impassable railways and canals meant dwindling coal supplies.

Even attempts to make the most of the weather posed grave dangers, as is illustrated by this account in the Illustrated Police News:
A man named Edward Blake was drowned in the Welsh Harp waters at Hendon last week. Some girls had ventured on the ice of the lake between the eastern side of the Edgware Road and the Midland Railway viaduct, and the ice broke, immersing two of them. In trying to rescue them Blake was drowned in sight of his brother, who did succeed in saving the females, but failed to rescue Blake. The deceased leaves a wife and several children.
It was perhaps small consolation to Blake's grieving family that his heroism would be recorded in the Watts Memorial:


Image: Rotherhithe in the Frost of 1895, (c) National Maritime Museum

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Friday 17 December 2010

Shop style

One of the ways our streets gain their character is by the variety of building facades that line them. Some may be obviously extraordinary or chain-store mundane, but there are lots which are more quietly satisfying. One is this office furniture store on New Cross Road, which has a nice vintage feel to the signage. It also has a website, showing that old and new can work together!

Thursday 16 December 2010

Houndsditch Murders centenary

Exactly a hundred years ago today, a neighbour heard suspicious sounds in a jeweller's shop in Houndsditch. Nine police officers attended the scene of the suspected burglary and knocked on the door. The man who answered apparently didn't speak English and went to get someone to help. In fact, the people who appeared had no interest in talking: they fired at the unarmed officers, killing three.

The burglars made their escape, and a huge hunt for them followed. One died, having been accidentally shot by a comrade at Houndsditch; after a few days, the police received intelligence that several of the gang were hiding at 100 Sidney Street in the East End. There followed the Sidney Street siege, in which the heavily-armed occupants of the building attempted to hold off several hundred police officers who formed a cordon outside - overseen personally by Home Secretary Winston Churchill. He summoned artillery, but in the event it wasn't needed. The siege ended when the building caught alight; Churchill refused to allow the Fire Brigade to attend. Two dead bodies were found inside.

How had a burglary gone so wrong? Much of the answer lies in the burglars' identity: they were not simply a criminal gang, but a group of Latvian revolutionaries. While Britain had been little affected directly by anarchist violence, a number of European anarchists sought refuge here and there had been a mysterious Greenwich explosion in 1894, in which Martial Bourdin was killed by the bomb he carried. Just a year before the Houndsditch murders, the Tottenham Outrage had seen a robbery by Latvian anarchists end in four deaths: a police officer, a ten-year-old boy, and both of the robbers.

An article in this month's BBC History Magazine points out that the treatment revolutionaries received from police in their own countries was a key factor in the violence used here. However, London's police were unarmed and the killings caused national outrage. They also led to a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and rhetoric. The Daily Mirror headline for the funeral of the police officer killed in the Tottenham Outrage encapsulated much of this: 'Police constable Tyler, who was murdered by alien terrorists at Tottenham, given a hero's funeral'.

Pathe have wonderful footage of the Sidney Street siege:

Top image: Scotland Yard detectives inspecting the burning house on Sidney Street, shared by Wikimedia under a Creative Commons licence.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Signposts (5): cycle storage

Judging by this sign, the Pied Bull in Chester was a good place for cyclists to refresh themselves: the Road & Path Cycling Association have placed their own logo and a 'cycle storage' sign on its wall.

The Association was incorporated in 1889; according to the National Archives, it was disbanded by 1916, making this sign older than I expected. Apart from the existence of a similar sign in Wigan, there's not much information online about the association - but they've certainly left their mark in Chester.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Ghost signs (43): Chester

This pair of ghost signs on the same short street, Charlotte Street, are made particularly special by their wonderful brickwork.

The first promises Bovril for real beef flavour. I have to admit that I find Walker's Warrington and Burton Ales more tempting, though.

Sunday 12 December 2010

From the archives: tigers in Deptford

Something a little wild this week!

Deptford has a long history of tigers. The first was a 200-ton ship, built in the town in 1546, which would later pursue the Spanish Armada. Another Tyger was also built here in 1647; the 38-gun ship besieged Colchester during the Civil War, followed Admiral Blake in 1650, and took an active part in the Second Dutch War. Rebuilt four times, it eventually foundered off Tortuga in the Caribbean in 1743; the crew not only fought off the Spanish for 56 days before they escaped in small boats over 700 miles to Jamaica, but even managed to take 20 of the ship's guns with them.

However, there have also been more literal big cats in Deptford. On 11 June 1732, the newspapers reported an unusual - and unwelcome - visitor to the docks:
Yesterday 7-Night, a Tyger at Deptford, on board the Cadogan, from the East Indies, broke his Chain, which obliged most of the Sailors on Board to get out of his Way, the Boys being on Shoar that used to feed him. He jump’d from Ship to Ship and cleared all before him, till a Sawyer belonging to the King’s Yard knocked him down with a Handspike, and killed him on the Spot.

Another sad end to a long journey.

Image by ktpupp on flickr, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Friday 10 December 2010

Le Grand Rex

Here's a nice piece of Art Deco in Paris: the Grand Rex cinema. It's one of Europe's largest, and in this multiplex era retains its 3,300-seater auditorium - although more comfortable seating has now reduced capacity to 2,650. (There are smaller rooms, but they're consigned to the basement.)

The Rex opened on 8 December 1932. The evening featured an orchestra, organ and dancers; among all the glamour and wonder, it's unlikely that the audience would have guessed that there had been a slight scaling back of the plans. Cinema owner Jacques Haik had originally planned an auditorium seating 5,000!

Another innovation appeared in 1957: one of France's first escalators, inaugurated by film star Gary Cooper.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Deptford Christmas Fair

This Saturday, Deptford is having a Christmas event which also aims to promote the recently-renovated Margaret McMillan Park route from New Cross Station. The centrepiece will be a big wheel in the park, with free rides offering views over the local area. I won't be able to go, but if anyone else does and takes photos, I'd love to see them.

Around Douglas Way, Giffin Square and the High Street will be various other events including rickshaws, a brass band, childrens' decorations workshop, free bicycle maintenance and the ominous promise of 'fun and games'. On Tanners Hill are an artisan market, morris dancing and refreshments while at 3pm, the Christmas tree lights in Giffin Square will be switched on by the three little pigs!

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Zodiac, Weston-Super-Mare

There are all sorts of Victorian treasures to spot above ground level in Weston-Super-Mare, but I'm a little baffled by this one. Above a shop in West Street are Aries and Taurus, illustrated with appropriate reliefs; to either end the banners state that the building dates from 'A.D. 1869'.

I haven't found any information about this facade, so have no idea why the signs of the zodiac; why those particular signs; or who chose them. If anyone has any ideas, I'd love to learn more!

Monday 6 December 2010


According to stereotype, Polish food is all about cabbage and potatoes. That may be unjust, but it's certainly true that they make delicious fillings for my favourite speciality, pierogi.

Often described as 'dumplings', pierogi are actually more similar to tortellini: a dough of flour and eggs is rolled out, cut into circles and stuffed with a variety of fillings.

When I made them with a friend (and under her tuition), we filled half with potato and cheese, half with cabbage. They are then boiled and can be eaten fresh or reheated by boiling or frying.

Pierogi are perfect for winter. They're a tasty comfort food, warming and substantial - and very satifying to make.

Sunday 5 December 2010

From the archives: pat-a-cake...

While we're all looking at the ground to avoid ice and slush, here's a reminder of the unexpected pleasures to be found by looking up.

Justify FullWidegate Street, one of those narrow roads opposite Liverpool Street station, has a treasure lurking just above eye level. Between the first-floor windows of a shop on the corner with White Rose Court are four reliefs depicting the making of bread: the baker carries a sack of flour, kneads the dough, bakes the loaf and finally carries a tray of bread all ready for sale. Although the store below is no longer a bakery, it is a sandwich shop which seems apt enough.

The first relief is signed 'P Lindsey Clark' and dated 1926. Philip Lindsey Clark was born in London and studied at Cheltenham and the City & Guilds School. He then served in the army during World War One; according to the London Gazette, he was awarded the DSO
for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of the left flank company of the battalion. When the enemy broke through on his left he organised a defensive flank. Finding a gap on the left he filled and held it with some of his own men and of the unit on his left. He personally led a charge against the advancing enemy and dispersed them, and later repelled another attack. He was wounded by a piece of shrapnel in the head, but though dazed continued to command his company for two days until relieved.
After the war, Lindsey Clark sculpted a number of war memorials including the one in Borough High Street. Other major commissions included several figures (St George, Christ and crib figures) in Westminster Cathedral. A friend of Eric Gill, Lindsey Clark is perhaps best known for his memorial and ecclesiastical work. However, the bakery reliefs were not his only work for commercial premises: for example, he also produced reliefs of two figures for the Gas Showrooms in Sheffield.

This narrow street, then, is lucky enough to have not only one of the more unusual decorative features in the City but also an example of the work of an important twentieth-century sculptor. Well worth pausing and looking up for!

Friday 3 December 2010

Ice, snow and rain

As we're finding out thanks to the railway chaos around London, one of the big problems with snow is the ice that comes with it. The combination proved particularly dangerous in 1809, when the consequence was a flood. This newspaper report of 29 January paints a dramatic picture of its impact upon Deptford:
EFFECTS OF THE THAW. – The sudden thaw which took place on Tuesday has occasioned great damage in the vicinity of the metropolis, by the immense torrents flooding and overwhelming the low lands. ... The Ravensborn river, at Lewisham, early on Wednesday morning, overflowed its banks, inundating all the fields between that place and Deptford. Form the waterworks at the top of Mill-lane (in the broad way, which leads to the Ravensborn), to the Tide-mills in Church-street, Deptford (where it found vent in Deptford creek), it rushed in torrents, in many parts up to the chamber window; chairs, tables, and furniture of various descriptions, were washed away, and carried through the creek into the Thames. The body of a man was also observed, carried forward with the torrent. It likewise rushed from the fields on the right of Deptford bridge, and, about nine on Wednesday morning, became higher than the arch of the bridge, in consequence of which it broke down the parapet, and about four yards of the bridge gave way. The road was impassable for several hours. ... [Jan 29, 1809]
The thaw had happened quickly, prompted by heavy rain. However, what made things much worse was a thin layer of ice under the snow: it prevented the water soaking into the ground, and flooding of the Thames and its tributaries was the result.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Christmas shop

It's that time of year when we're all supposed to be shopping; at least the snow might keep the crowds down! Here are two alternatives to braving the department stores.

First, shop locally. Deptford has a number of events this weekend under the title 'Gifted', and a walk along Creekside may well be enough to finish the seasonal gift shopping. My regular favourite is the open studios at Cockpit Arts, which has everything from greetings cards to homewares to designer jewellery. Its cafe also promises mulled wine with a twist! Newcomer Faircharm Fair, 11-7pm Saturday and 11-5pm Sunday also looks well worth a visit: it promises over thirty artists and designer-makers, as well as a pop-up cafe for that all-important hot drink.

There are more local 'pop-ups' over on Deptford Dame, but if the mere thought of stepping outside makes you shiver, then how about a bit of warming nostalgia? Philip Wilkinson, author of Turn Back Time: The High Street (book of the TV series) has been sharing some fabulous old shops on English Buildings. From Edwardian tiling to 1930s vitrolite, there's a lovely selection. My personal favourite is a pair of Victorian cast-iron shopfronts in Witney.