Saturday 31 December 2011

Top five of 2011

To end the year, here's a quick review of this site's most popular posts of 2011.

In fifth place was London, 1940s: a look at post-war London in film. Staying with the twentieth-century theme,  fourth place went to Inside BT Tower, my visit to the top of one of London's taller landmarks. (I took the lift!)

Number three was one of the more extraordinary sights from the BT Tower: the lonely figure of Middlesex Hospital Chapel. This listed Victorian building is all that survives on the former hospital site, currently awaiting redevelopment.

A relatively topical post, on  the long history of London riots, took second place. However, the most popular post of the year was rather more cheerful: some Edwardian advice to tourists. A must-read for all London sightseers!

One final mention for the new pages on this blog - there's one for Postman's Park and another for ghost signs.

Above all, thank you for reading and a very happy new year!

Thursday 29 December 2011

Final rest

Greenwich's saddest bird must be this cockatoo, resting uncomfortably if aptly in the graveyard at Devonport House. 

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Smithfield Market trains

There has been a market at Smithfield for over 800 years, but the current building was opened in 1868. Among the reasons for rebuilding was the provision of railway facilities: with most of the meat now arriving by train rather than on the hoof, being able to unload it on-site was a huge advantage. 

The Morning Post of 3 November 1868 described the amenities:
The building for the market covers an area of 620 feet by 240 feet, and beneath the floor of this large building there is a world of railways, and sidings, and cranes, and lifts, designed to facilitate the supply of the market with its thousands of tons of meat and poultry. The Metropolitan Railway will provide access to this market for the meat-laden trains of the Great Western, Midland, Great Northern, South-Western, and Chatham and Dover Lines; and by this system of underground communication will relieve to a great extent the street traffic. ... Of the area below the market one half - the northern - belongs to the Metropolitan Railway Company, and the southern half to the Great Western, which has the right of passing over the rails of the Metropolitan. 
What was coming into the market and from where? The Morning Post offered details: 
The Great Northern's deliveries consist of large consignments of prime beef, which start from Aberdeen, now, in fact, one of the London abattoirs. The northern counties of Scotland add to the contributions of beef as the train proceeds southwards. In the Lothians and Lowland counties of Scotland, mutton is added by tons; and onwards in England, through the northern, midland, and home counties, the load keeps constantly increasing with beef, mutton, pork, and veal. The loads of the Great Western, smaller in aggregate quantity, are higher in relative value, including, as they do, a large proportion of the finest quality of hams and bacon from Ireland and Wiltshire. The Midland brings in a large quantity of meat and poultry from Scotland, the North of Ireland, and the midland counties. The London, Chatham, and Dover brings about 20 tons of game and poultry per week. The quantity of meat brought into London last year by railways is close upon 100,000  tons, and nearly the whole of this will, on the opening of the New Meat Market, be delivered from the railways below the level of the new building. 
The railway facilities are no more. The Snow Hill tunnel which carried the railway line was closed in 1916 while the sidings beneath Smithfield lasted into the 1960s. Today, the tunnel is part of Thameslink and the space under the market has been converted into a car park. 

Friday 23 December 2011

Navigating Christmas

When the shops are closed, tubes and buses aren't running, and no one can agree what to watch on TV, it's time to turn to the internet for seasonal entertainment.* With a tube strike promised for Boxing Day, a transport-based selection of ideas seems apt!

* Although, should you prefer to get some fresh air on Christmas day, Londonist has an invaluable guide to what's open. 

Image by Shaun Derry. 

Wednesday 21 December 2011

St Katharine by the Tower

Around St Katharine's Docks are a number of mooring bollards, topped with this attractive design. It reads 'St Katharine by the Tower' and has an image of the saint in the centre. She is stood alongside a wheel: apparently innocuous, but actually a reminder of her martyrdom by being broken on the wheel. 

The name is that of a hospital which formerly stood on the site. Established in the twelfth century, it was demolished in the 1820s - along with over a thousand houses, slum accommodation for 11,300 people - in order for the docks to be built. There is evidence of a smaller dock having been here throughout the site's history, but Thomas Telford's scheme gave two large, purpose-built commercial docks surrounded by secure warehouses for valuable cargo. 

The docks could not take larger ships, and were already starting to decline before being bombed in the Second World War. They closed in 1968. Their prime location next to Tower Bridge, however, ensured that redevelopment has followed. The docks are now a marina with restaurants occupying the warehouses; the bollards are subtle reminders of a more industrial past. 

Monday 19 December 2011

London to Hove

This detail is from the porte cochere at the front of Hove railway station. It's on the London to Brighton line, but there's an even stronger London connection than that. The porte cochere itself, a large covered expanse providing shelter for those arriving at the station and their vehicles, was originally part of Victoria Station. It was moved to its present location when rebuilding at Victoria made it redundant there. 

The tiled initials are 'LBSCR'. They stand for London Brighton & South Coast Railway, a company formed in 1846 when the original operators, the London & Brighton Railway, amalgamated with several other companies. They continued to own the line until they merged once again, forming the Southern Railway in 1923. The LBSCR was also known as 'the Brighton Line', a name which lives on in bingo calls ("five and nine...").

Saturday 17 December 2011

Deptford Copperas

Copperas Street is a topographical reminder of one element in Deptford's industrial past. Copperas manufacture began here in the seventeenth century and continued until 1828. Although now largely forgotten, the industry was once a highly significant one. 

Copperas, or iron vitriol, is a ferrous sulphate. It was made from iron pyrites stone: not the shiny, 'fool's gold' form but heavy, dull black pebbles found in London clay and on Kent beaches. Once manufactured, Deptford copperas was used to make black and red dyes. (Other possible uses included production of sulphuric acid, or oil of vitriol, dye fixative, ink and gunpowder manufacture. It even became an ingredient of various patent medicines)

Sir Nicholas Crispe - whose main trade activities were in West Africa, and included the slave trade -established copperas manufacture in Deptford, off Church Street. The works had their own dock on Deptford Creek. An account given to the Royal Society in 1678 described the copperas bed as 'about an hundred feet long, fifteen feet broad at the top, and twelve feet deep, shelving all the way to the bottom.' The bed had clay and chalk at the bottom, with a wooden trough in the middle which led to a cistern. The iron pyrites stones were laid about two feet deep, then left to ripen for five or six years in the sun and rain before they began to produce a liquor of sufficient strength. New stones would be laid on top every four years to refresh the bed. 

The liquor ran into a cistern which could hold seven hundred tons. The cistern was built from chalk-caulked oak boards; further boards sub-divided it to prevent leakage. Its liquid was pumped to a lead boiler some eight feet square where it was boiled with scrap iron for a week - thanks to improvements brought in by Crispe. Prior to his innovations, the process had taken about 20 days. This was expensive, as the fuel for this process was Newcastle coal. 

Once sufficiently concentrated, the liquid was left in a cooler for a further two weeks for the crystals to form. Deptford's cooler was unusual in being made of tarras, a form of cement, rather than the more usual lead. It was twenty feet by nine feet, and five feet deep. The copperas would form five inches thick on the bottom and sides. 

The copperas works are not simply a forgotten piece of local history or a byway of industrial history. Rather,  researcher Tim Allen argues that they force us to reappraise the origins of the Industrial Revolution. Well before the development of the coal and steel industries in the north, these chemical works in London and on the Kent coast required capital investment and a long manufacturing process, and produced large returns. Copperas also contributed to many other industries, and was arguably a vital forebear of the modern chemical industry. 

Image: Iron(II) sulfate [copperas], from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Romilly in Russell Square

In the eighteenth-century, so many offences carried the death penalty that the criminal law of the period is known as the 'Bloody Code'. The population might have been seriously depleted, were it not for important factors limiting the actual number of executions. First, many of the capital offences were awfully specific: damaging a particular bridge, for instance. Secondly, juries would convict of lesser offences (undervaluing stolen goods, for example) or leniency being granted after the death sentence was imposed.

However, the second factor introduced its own problem: convicts' lives depended upon the whim of those judging them. Sir Samuel Romilly saw that the more satisfactory solution would be to reduce the number of offences carrying the death sentence, and dedicated himself to seeking reform.

Romilly was the grandson of Huguenots; although his father was a jeweller, it was decided that he would train in the law. He qualified as a barrister, practised with some success, and was appointed solicitor-general in 1806. That was the beginning of a political career dominated by his campaign for criminal law reform.

His first success was the abolition of the death penalty for theft from the person. Unfortunately, his subsequent attempts at similar reforms to other offences were unsuccessful. (The exceptions were repeal of the death penalty for theft from bleaching grounds, and for soldiers or sailors who begged without an official pass.) His work was not in vain, though: the political atmosphere began to change so that in 1823 the death penalty became discretionary rather than mandatory for many offences, and by 1861 only five capital offences remained.

Sadly, Romilly would not see these later successes. When his wife died suddenly in 1818, he was dreadfully distressed. At his home in Russell Square, now marked by a plaque, he cut his own throat just a few days later.

Monday 12 December 2011

Wintry Wisley

Described by the Royal Horticultural Society as their flagship garden, Wisley in Surrey is full of interest even in the depths of December.

Sunday 11 December 2011


Many thanks to ChrisP of Ornamental Passions - and Rowing for Pleasure - for identifying the boat in Tull's terracotta sign as a peterboat.

Peterboats were used for fishing on the Thames from mediaeval times until the nineteenth century. Legend has it that they used to ferry passengers between the cathedrals of Saxon London; their use for fishing is better documented and endured for centuries. They were double-ended rowing boats, well-balanced, typically with a well in the middle to hold the catch.

The small peterboat died out in the mid-nineteenth century, having evolved into the larger 'bawley' which could be around 30 feet long with sails. They were particularly popular around Leigh, where they were used for shrimp fishing. Meanwhile, growing pollution was driving fishing boats out of London altogether: by the end of the century, the Greenwich whitebait fisheries which had used these boats disappeared. (Ironically, for some time before that, the pollution in the water actually seemed to benefit the fish!) One of the city's characteristic craft thus vanished from its river.

Thursday 8 December 2011

London Christmas lights

The best Christmas lights in London are to be found away from Oxford Street and Regent Street. I explored some of them last night with Westminster Walking - there are further walks on 12 and 29 December, ending in a pub with open fires and mulled wine.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Ratcliffe Highway Murders

Today is the 200th anniversary of a particularly grisly crime: the Ratcliffe Highway murders. In what was then one of the seediest dockland districts, draper Timothy Marr and his wife Celia, their baby son and their apprentice James Gowan were all found brutally murdered in their home. Only the family's maid survived, having been out trying to buy oysters. Less than a fortnight later, another family would be brutally killed.

The murders were never solved. When suspect John Williams hanged himself (or was hanged) in his cell, the case was officially closed but in fact it is unlikely he killed alone. He may not even have been involved at all. Nonetheless, he was paraded through the streets before being buried with a stake through his heart.

Rather than rehearse the facts in more depth, I'm happy to be able to suggest a rich assortment of further reading. The case was investigated by the Thames Police, who have a full account on their website. IanVisits has revisited the locations (now utterly changed) and also draws some modern parallels. For a map and more photos, see Londonist.

For more depth, there is a book-length account of the crime by PD James, The Maul and the Pear Tree. Alternatively, you can explore the scene yourself with a guided walk by Spitalfields Life on 28 December, or get a flavour of what the area was like in the reconstructed Sailortown at the Museum of London Docklands.

Monday 5 December 2011

Frederic David Mocatta, Victorian philanthropist

Among the many public drinking fountains in the City of London is this example outside St Botolph's, Aldgate. Dated 1909, it has a carved inscription bearing the name of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association - but below is a metal plate bearing a fuller explanation of its presence:
In honoured memory of Frederic David Mocatta, in recognition of a benevolent life, January 16th 1905.
It's a lovely epitaph for a man whose impact on the lives of the London poor was significant. Mocatta retired from Mocatta & Goldsmid, bullion brokers, in 1874 when he was not yet fifty. He thereafter dedicated himself to philanthropy.

He was involved in many charitable organisations working in London, particularly the East End, and was concerned that charities should encourage the independence of the poor. Although he had a particular interest in housing, many London hospitals and the RSPCA were among the beneficiaries of his philanthropy. Mocatta supported many Jewish charities, and for the last years of his life was chairman of the council of the West London Reform Synagogue.

Mocatta also engaged in study, particularly of Jewish history. He was the author of The Jews and the Inquisition, and funded publications by other authors. His library is now at University College London.

This isn't the most elegant drinking fountain in London, and it's unlikely that many passers-by today are tempted to drink from its chained cup. At least a few might, though, take a moment to ponder the 'benevolent life' of the notable Victorian philanthropist it commemorates.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Tull of Fenchurch Street

If you search among the shops in Fenchurch Street, you won't spot Tull, fishing line and twine makers. However, take a closer look above the sign for Moss and there they are in a terracotta relief. It proudly points out that Tull was established in 1740; two fishermen casting a net from their rowing boat illustrate the firm's products.

The company certainly had a long history on this site. Elizabeth Tull, 'Net, Twine & Line-maker' appears at the address in Kent's Directory of 1794; the current building dates from 1880. The actual manufacture was carried out in Globe Lane (now Globe Road), Mile End. (An Old Bailey case of 1818 concerned the theft of 18lb of hemp from the 'manufactory'. The thief was transported for seven years.)

Tull seems to have enjoyed a reputation for quality. In 1827, one WP Richards wrote to the Literary Gazette with an account of his trial of an anti-rot treatment for rope. The experiment used 'new cord, of the very best quality, sold by Mr. Tull, in Fenchurch Street.' A few years later, Tull were among the exhibitors at the Great Exhibition of 1851, showing 'twine, fishing lines, cords, ropes, casting nets, & c., made of different materials'.

Today, the company seems to have long disappeared. However, its representatives carry on fishing the first floors of Fenchurch Street, almost unnoticed by passers-by.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Seasonal London gifts

Wondering what to give the London geek in your life? Here are some of my favourite ideas for unusual presents:

For a suitably old-time ambience, try Victorian Trumps: a top trumps game offering amusement for all the family.

There are all sorts of covetable, vintage gifts at London Peculiar - and their map of London peculiars makes a lovely stocking-filler.

Amelia Parker has jewellery for men and women made with antique clay pipes. It's an amazing way to share something unique, centuries old, yet very usable. You can purchase the jewellery online, or at various markets throughout December.

For a present that lasts all year, museum membership is perfect. IanVisits has an excellent summary of what's on offer - from major institutions like the Science Museum to small and quirky options such as Carshalton Water Tower. Alternatively, cover all historical bases with membership of London Historians, with a monthly newsletter and events ranging from pub meetings to walks and tours.

Finally, this weekend is Gifted in Deptford: over 200 artists and designers are offering their work. Mulled wine and mince pies are also available, all well away from the unbearable crowds in the West End.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

High street Victoriana

One of the finest buildings in Bridgwater's shopping streets, E H Hooper is a beautiful Victorian survival. While it may offer less in the way of silk mercery, mantles and millinery than in years past, it continues to sell ladies' clothing and household linen.

Built as a house in the eighteenth century, the building was later converted to commercial use and its shop-front dates from late nineteenth century. There are so many lovely details: from the age-worn wording of the sign to the mosaic in the doorway. It's just a shame that the plate glass windows now reflect some rather mundane shopfronts from the other side of the street.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Cryptic clue

Having been built in 1367, the spire of St Mary's, Bridgwater has required repairs from time to time in the centuries since. Those of 1694 are commemorated in a plaque - but it's rather cryptic. First, it's on the side of the spire itself so reading it from the ground requires excellent eyesight. Second, the text is very economical: 'G B/H P/1694'.

This type of inscription always intrigues me. Were those responsible too modest to add more (although too proud to resist altogether)? Were they arrogant enough to think that everyone would always know just what those few letters and numbers meant? Or were they simply limited by space and money?

Sunday 27 November 2011

On toast sandwiches

The Royal Society of Chemistry has got a lot of publicity for its 'toast sandwich' recipe, inspired by Mrs Beeton and apparently costing 7.5 pence (which surely depends upon cheap bread and cheaper electricity). However, in emphasising its simplicity, the RSC are failing to heed Mrs Beeton's stern and substantial advice on the subject of toast.

Indeed, as well as her recipe for toast sandwiches ('tempting to the appetite of an invalid') and toast-and-water (a hot drink), Beeton offers separate recipes for dry toast and hot buttered toast. In the spirit of these frugal times, here are the instructions for making dry toast:
To make dry toast properly, a great deal of attention is required; much more, indeed, than people generally suppose. Never use new bread for making any kind of toast, as it eats heavy, and, besides, is very extravagant. Procure a loaf of household bread about two days old; cut off as many slices as may be required, not quite 1/4 inch in thickness; trim off the crusts and ragged edges, put the bread on a toasting fork, and hold it before a very clear fire. Move it backwards and forwards until the bread is nicely coloured; then turn it and toast the other side, and do not place it so near the fire that it blackens. Dry toast should be more gradually made than buttered toast, as its great beauty consists in its crispness, and this cannot be attained unless the process is slow and the bread is allowed gradually to colour. It should never be made long before it is wanted, as it soon becomes tough, unless placed on the fender in front of the fire. As soon as each piece is ready, it should be put into a rack, or stood upon its edges, and sent quickly to table.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Dr Salter's Daydream stolen

Last year, I blogged about a statue commemorating Dr Salter, who provided healthcare to Bermondsey's poor as well as working for them as the local MP. Sadly, that statue has been stolen from its bench; the girl and cat have been moved for safekeeping.

Here is the original post:

On the Thames path at Bermondsey, a man sits on a bench waving at a small girl and a large cat. They may make an odd trio but they do tell a story, as a nearby board explains.

The man is Dr Alfred Salter, born in Greenwich in 1873. A doctor trained at Guy's Hospital, he first visited and then moved to Bermondsey and took practical action to address the poverty there. Not only did he provide consultations for sixpence (or even free), but he also set up a health insurance scheme and Sunday morning adult education classes. Through his efforts, the area had a local health service long before the establishment of the NHS. He also became a local Liberal councillor before moving to the Independent Labour Party.

Dr Salter married and had a daughter, who was educated locally. However, she died of scarlet fever aged only 8: this is the girl depicted in his daydream. After her death, his work for local people continued. He bought a house in Kent which was turned into a convalescent home for Bermondsey people, and in 1922 became MP for Bermondsey. The returning officer who declared him elected was the mayor - his wife Ada, a successful activist in her own right and the first woman mayor in London and first Labour mayor in Britain. He served as MP until 1945, when he stood down on health grounds. Dr Salter died later that year.

If you know anything about the statue's whereabouts, Southwark Council are offering a £1,000 reward.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Mystery object - for the birds

The mystery object on the front of Hogarth's House is a bird pot or 'sparrow pot'. These ceramic, bottle-shaped objects were designed for birds to nest in and seem to have been popular throughout London in the eighteenth century (and for several centuries before). However, their exact purpose is uncertain.

A similar pot has been found in Williamsburg, USA; you can buy a replica from the Colonial Williamsburg catalogue, which assumes that the birds were welcomed in order to control insects. However, that doesn't seem to be quite such a convincing explanation for urban London. Why, then, were city-dwellers eager to attract small birds to nest outside their windows?

The likeliest explanation seems to be that the eggs and baby birds were readily accessible (by reaching out of a window and unhooking the bottle) so that they could be taken and eaten. This rather grisly explanation does raise a question: were the tiny amounts of protein worth the effort? I also thought that birds would soon learn not to nest in these 'bottles' if they wanted their young to survive, but apparently they are more likely to respond by laying another clutch of eggs.

It will be interesting to find out how the bird pot on Hogarth's House fares. I should add that the staff have no plans to eat any birds nesting there!

Monday 21 November 2011

Swine and other profanation

Still in Chiswick, the wall of St Nicholas's churchyard carries an interesting inscription. It's rather worn and difficult to read now, so I'm grateful for the transcription on the church website:
This wall was made at ye charges of ye right honourable and trulie pious Lorde Francis Russell Earle of Bedford oute of true zeale and care for ye keeping of this churchyard and ye wardrobe of Goddes saintes, whose bodies lay therein buryed from violating of swine and other profanation so witnesseth William Walker, v.1623’ Rebuilt in 1831: refaced in 1884.
Nearby is a flood marker, which doesn't look that remarkable until the passer-by notices the considerable slope from the river's edge to this point in the road. The date is also a hint that this flooding was out of the ordinary: it marks the high point of the lethal 1928 floods which affected much of riverside London.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Hogarth in Chiswick

How better to explore the life of eighteenth-century artist William Hogarth than on a sunny autumn day in Chiswick, in the company of London Historians? Famous as the creator of Gin Lane and The Rake's Progress, Hogarth was an artist, satirist and cartoonist who depicted all levels of London life. However, he also had a country home - in Chiswick, then a rural area on the edge of the city.

His home was a relatively modest house which he extended and embellished with an oriel window. It has survived largely intact, despite the efforts of a World War II bomb, and has just reopened after several years' restoration. While the house is now alongside the A4, it was easy to ignore the sound of traffic as our guide Val Bott took us back to the quiet village Hogarth knew.

It was also in Chiswick that Hogarth was buried, in the churchyard of St Nicholas's. Here, his friend the actor David Garrick was involved in erecting a memorial to him. Hogarth is also remembered by a statue on the High Road and, rather incongruously, a roundabout. Unfortunately, when many London motorists hear his name they probably think first of the traffic news!

We'll leave Chiswick with a little mystery: can you identify this object, which is on the facade of Hogarth's house?

Friday 18 November 2011

Doll's house

The Hotel Russell in Bloomsbury is an elaborate late-Victorian structure, full of carved details and decorative flourishes. No excuse is missed for a bit of sculpture or a few reliefs. Perhaps most fanciful of all is the roofline: there are stripy chimneys, turrets worthy of a Disney castle, and of course a few more garlands and warriors.

Charles Fitzroy Doll was the architect responsible for all this exuberance. Although he designed a number of hotels, his most famous (and short-lived) creation is perhaps the Titanic's dining room. While that work is now at the bottom of the ocean, the Hotel Russell's fate is much happier: recently restored, it continues to dominate its square.

Thursday 17 November 2011

London Remembers relaunched

Last night was the official relaunch of the new, improved London Remembers. This amazing website maps an enormous number of London memorials of all kinds, and is now lovelier and easier to use than ever.

If you want to find out about a particular memorial then there's a very good chance you'll find it here. However, the true joy of the site is just browsing through all the extraordinary lives commemorated in fountains, statues, plaques and more. It's a labour of love, which means that the definition can be stretched now and then to include a not-quite memorial to a shop and some puzzling stones commemorating 'Little Whig and Kitt Catt'. There are many, many more treasures: get browsing and choose your own favourites!

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Random statue 12: Robert Milligan

Looking out at West India Docks, Robert Milligan's statue has seen a lot of changes since 1813. However, they are no more extreme than the changes Milligan had overseen here during his lifetime.

Born and brought up in Jamaica, where his family owned sugar plantations, Milligan came to London in 1779. Here, he would become the leading member of a group of businessmen who created the West India Docks. They wanted a safer place to unload cargoes from the Caribbean, which had suffered heavy thefts elsewhere in London's port. The foundation stone was laid in 1800, with the dock itself opening just two years later.

After a move to the dock entrance and a period in storage, Milligan's statue is back in its original position. However, behind him the former warehouses are now the Museum of London Docklands which tells the story not only of the docks he lived among and expanded, but also of the slavery and exploitation which lay behind the wealth of Milligan and his colleagues.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Breton woodwork

The mediaeval town of Dinan, Brittany is full of wonderful details. This carved figure adds its own contribution to the varied textures of wood on a half-timbered facade.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Servants' bells

Having servants may have been a luxury, but part of the cost was loss of privacy. Until well into the eighteenth century, there was no easy way to summon them from another part of a large house. A servant would therefore stay in the room with their employers, or just outside the door, so that they could be quickly called when needed. Only in 1744 was a bell system invented, enabling servants to be in other parts of the house until rung for.

By the nineteenth century, such systems had become standard in larger households. They were familiar enough to Victorian readers for a bell-pull to play a key role in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

The board of labelled bells pictured here is in Tyntesfield, a Victorian mansion in North Somerset. As electrical systems progressed, more modern systems would have smaller boards indicating which bell had been rung and a discreet button instead of a bell pull.

While such a system may seem the height of luxury to us, the New York Times of 1894 disagreed. In an article on Englishmen's dining rooms, it observed:
Such a convenience as a table bell is an unknown article of furnishing. Should the servant by any chance be wanted when out of the room, even at dinner, the mistress will rise from her chair and cross to the mantel, by the side of which is an electric button or bell pull communicating with the kitchen.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Grotto Passage

There is a whole lost world of London entertainment: its pleasure grounds, panoramas and private museums. One eighteenth-century attraction which now survives only as a street name was John Castle’s shell grotto, a wonderland of constructions in shells, housed in an acre of the open land which then characterised Marylebone.

The grotto didn’t long survive Castle’s death in 1757, and in the nineteenth century the area was no longer one of fields. Instead, a ragged and industrial school was built in Grotto Passage– but its elaborate lettering perhaps suggests a hint of whimsy lingering about the spot.

However, there was probably little that was whimsical about the lives of impoverished children educated there. A parliamentary report of 1854 states:
This institution was opened in 1846, in a small room in the above locality, at first as an evening school for boys of the ragged class.
In 1849 a refuge and reformatory for boys was opened, accommodation having been made for 25. 209 have been admitted; of these, 62 have been sent to Australia; 34 to Canada; 55 have entered the royal navy; 36 the merchant service; and 10 various kinds of service at home. Total, 197.
Why such an emphasis on emigration? Apparently it was difficult to find work for these children in London; that must have been all the more true for the Grotto School. According to evidence heard in 1852, it was one ‘where children, who were found unmanageable in the workhouse on account of bad behaviour, have been taken in, and reformed and emigrated.’

I discovered this intriguing alley on a tour of Marylebone with Jo of Westminster Walking which I’d recommend highly. Alternatively, if all this talk of grottos has put you in a festive mood, she offers a tour of London’s Christmas lights which ends in a pub with a fire and mulled wine.

Monday 7 November 2011

From the archives: London to Brighton Run

Sadly, I missed the display of vehicles from this year's London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. However, here's a look back at my visit to this fabulous event in 2009.

It may be stood on a taxi rank, but this is not a new design for London taxis! Rather, this is 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.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Herons, pelicans and pigeons

The stars of St James's Park are the pelicans: a feature since 1664 when some were presented to Charles II by the Russian Ambassador. One of the city's more unusual experiences is watching the pelican feeding, which happens each day at 2.30pm.

However, even a well-fed pelican can fancy a snack between meals. In 2006, one of the St James's Park birds became a media star when it was photographed eating a pigeon (a feat which arguably makes it something of a London hero). Another apparently used to fly to London Zoo and steal their fish. Indeed, a discussion of the pelicans in the House of Lords alluded to the risk of other birds' young being eaten if there were too many pelicans in the park. (It also discussed their sex, something which is apparently difficult to establish and has been worrying politicians for at least half a century.)

These greedy, charismatic birds may attract most attention, but there are plenty of other interesting species to spot. On my last walk through the park, one heron was striking an ornamental pose on the roof of Duck Island Cottage. In fact, there are 15 species of waterfowl here as well as birds including great spotted woodpeckers and tawny owls. An account from 1878 describes their popularity:
The waterfowl here are natives of almost every climate in the world, and the Zoological Society itself has scarcely a finer or more varied collection. Those which are not foreign are mostly descendants of the ducks which Charles II. took such pleasure in feeding with his own royal hands. ... It is almost needless to add that the banks of the "canal," and the bridge which spans it, are the haunt of children and their nurses, and the pieces of bread and biscuit which are given daily to the ducks, geese, and swans would well-nigh feed the inmates of a workhouse.

Friday 4 November 2011

Alternative Visions

If you are near Deptford this evening or tomorrow morning, there is an opportunity to see alternative visions for Convoy's Wharf - the former naval dockyard, full of historic interest and about to be redeveloped.

This (Friday) evening's event is from 6.30pm with a presentation at 7pm; tomorrow there is a drop-in session from 9.30am to midday. The exhibition is at the Master Shipwright's House on Watergate Street (a wonderful historic building in its own right).

Thursday 3 November 2011

Pudding from the past

The Guardian has the lovely story of a Christmas pudding found at the back of a kitchen cupboard - 111 years after it was sent to a sailor fighting in the Boer War. Philanthropist Agnes Weston was responsible for sending the pudding and other gifts to cheer up those at the front; the tin even bears the message 'For the Naval Brigade, In the Front, With Miss Weston's Best Christmas & New Year, 1900, Wishes.' However, her temperance principles meant that the Peak Freen plum pudding, although full of 'high class ingredients', was alcohol-free.

Despite tantalising us with its instructions - 'This pudding is ready for use but may be boiled for an hour if required hot' - the dessert is long past its use-by date and its tin is corroded. It won't be part of anyone's festive meal, then, but will go on display at Portsmouth's Royal Navy Museum.

The Christmas puddings were not the only way in which Agnes Weston brightened up sailors' lives. She founded Sailors' Rest temperance hostels where sailors could get food, drink, baths, (non-alcoholic) entertainment and a bed for the night - from 1892, they were Royal Sailors' Rests. She also published a monthly letter which was sent to sailors at sea, developing into the journal Ashore and Afloat, and campaigned for widows' pensions. In recognition of her philanthropic work, she was buried with full naval honours in 1918. Although the services it provides has changed, her organisation (now RSR) continues its work today.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Deptford murals (3): Douglas Square

Replacing the earlier Deptford Railway Yard, this mural was painted during Deptford X. Peter Anderson scaled up his photographs (taken in Deptford and, er, New York); between them are 'posterized photograms of playful icons and objects that [he has] collected from Deptford Market'. They are intended to 'represent the urban culture of the Deptford community'. Reader, I'll leave you to judge for yourself.

Sunday 30 October 2011

From the archives: London advice to sightseers

If you ever feel nostalgia for simpler times, when there were fewer distractions and less crime, then this century-old advice to tourists will sweep it away. Apparently, London was nothing but a series of traps for the unwary; only Enquire Within Upon Everything stood between them and ruin.

The Victorians had a book which enabled them to'Enquire Within Upon Everything' from recipes for opium-rich home remedies to the language of flowers; from addressing dukes to getting rid of your local accent; and from choosing furniture to choosing your baby's name. My copy is a fairly late one (the 110th edition!), so articles on the desirability of owning a motor car and a wife's right to keep her own earnings have also crept in. Another innovation is 'Advice to Sightseers', a selection of tips on visiting London:

1. Before starting on your holiday spend two hours in studying a good guide-book and mapping out a programme for each day of your stay in London. Note that some institutions, as the British Museum, are open free every day; some, as the National Gallery, are open free on certain days and for a fee on others; some, as the Mint and Woolwich Arsenal, are open on specified days and under stringent conditions. These things should be ascertained from the guide-book before leaving home, and your programme modified accordingly.
['Enquire' is never afraid to be prescriptive - take two hours precisely! - or to state the obvious.]

2. Group the sights so as to economize your time. For example, avoid such a programme for a day's doings as this - the Tower; Tate Gallery; Madame Tussaud's; Greenwich Hospital; Hyde Park. To "do" these sights in a day would put a great deal of time to waste.
[To do these sights in a day would require you to sprint non-stop and skip lunch! Perhaps you should have spent more than two hours with the guide book.]

3. Ask your way of a policeman, postman, telegraph boy, or shopkeeper. If you are in a residential quarter, you will be compelled to resort to the courtesy of the casual wayfarer; but in that case take the direction from him and then pass on.
[This is the start of an obsession with not chatting to Londoners, but you might rebel and pause to say thank you.]

4. If you feel that you are taking the wrong road, do not proceed farther until you have ascertained whether you are right or wrong. You have a civil tongue; do not hesitate to use it.
[But only in accordance with (3) - remember not to stand around chatting. A pity you weren't advised to get a map.]

5. If a stranger get into conversation with you in a gallery, or church, or the street, make himself particularly affable, claim that he thinks he has met you before or that he comes from the same town or district as yourself, be on your guard instantly. If further he be joined, apparently by chance, by a friend or two and propose to adjourn for a drink or a meal, and then talk of his prospects and the money he has, and ask you to lend him, for a short while, your purse, or an article of value, merely to show your confidence in him - he having already shown his confidence in them by handing some article to his confederates - be sure you are in the company of "confidence trick" rogues and leave them at once. If you happen on a policeman near by, describe the men to him and tell him where you left them. The information may be useful to him. Avoid all talk with undesirable or promiscuous folk whose appearance and manner you do not care for on acquaintance.
[Londoners will apparently only talk to you in order to rob you, while non-Londoners are incredibly gullible; more surprising to the modern reader is the idea that you might expect to happen on a policeman.]

6. As to tips, at many establishments where only a light repast is served "no gratuities" is the rule. Otherwise the custom is to tip the waiter on the scale of 1dfor every shilling of your bill. Thus if your dinner cost 2s. 6d., the waiter's tip would be 2d. or 3d., whichever you please.
[And how do you solve the twopence/threepence dilemma? After so many precise instructions, 'Enquire' has suddenly left us high and dry!]

7. For a short stay it will answer your convenience and save time to put up at a comfortable central hotel rather than lodge in a suburb.
[But if you couldn't work that out for yourself, you're probably still pondering the twopence/threepence quandary.]

8. Arrange your programme so as to leave the evenings free for the theatre, or music hall, or concert, or the fireworks at the Crystal Palace.
[Assuming you are not just too tired and penniless having sprinted from one end of London to the other, handed your wallet to a new 'friend' for no obvious reason, offended the waiter with your mean tip and then had to travel back to your hotel in the outer suburbs...]

Related post: London sightseeing, when did it get so slow?