Thursday 31 March 2011

Digital discoveries

One of the joys of researching history online is the sheer range of resources available. At two events today, I discovered two very different websites -both fascinating.

First came the launch of Connected Histories, an amazing resource which allows a single search across eleven different collections (with more to be added).* Its value is twofold: first, it is dedicated to British history between 1500 and 1900, meaning that the results are focused and relevant. Secondly, the range of sources - from Old Bailey Online to the Origins genealogy site - allows interesting connections to be made and shared.

There was a drastic change of scale for my next event, a talk by John Tingey on The Englishman Who Posted Himself. This entertaining lecture directed the audience to a website and Facebook page full of further information. They may lack the ambitious scope of Connected Histories but, if you enjoy Victorian eccentricity, they're well worth a visit!

* Some of the sites require a subscription in order to access the full record.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Tuesday 29 March 2011

'These look fit enough!'

Women's football was hugely popular in Britain in the first part of the twentieth century. It had had a shaky start: while an England-Scotland international in 1881 went smoothly, a second game a few days later in Glasgow ended in a pitch invasion. The spectators (over 5,000 and mostly male) objected to the quality of play and of umpiring, and turned violent; the players fled in their omnibus, with stakes thrown at the vehicle as it sped away. Newspapers announced the death of the women's game, but they were over-hasty.

In 1894, the British Ladies' Football Club was founded by Nettie Honeyball, whose motives were avowedly feminist: "proving to the world that women are not the 'ornamental and useless' creatures men have pictured. ... I look forward to the time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs, especially those which concern them most." They played their first match the following year, in Crouch End, London. It attracted a crowd of 10,000 who were more tolerant than their Scottish counterparts of the standard of play (although the women had practised throughout the winter, they were hampered by nerves and very bulky outfits).

The women's game continued uncertainly on until a boost was given by the First World War, when teams of munition workers played in major venues. Many continued playing after the War, often for charity. In 1920, 53,000 spectators watched a boxing day match between Dick, Kerr Ladies (a Preston team) and St Helen's Ladies; the biggest crowd for a men's match that year was just 37,545. Such success, though, was perhaps the cause of what happened next.

The following year, the Football Association decided that the game should be male-only. They banned women from Football League grounds with the argument that "football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged." This (lighthearted, not to say patronising) 'topical budget' newsreel was made in response:

Sadly, the FA remained convinced by its own argument; the ban went ahead and was only lifted in 1971. Although the women's game continued - the Dick, Kerr Ladies' team was only disbanded in 1965 - it was badly damaged by the ban. Since it was lifted, football has grown hugely in popularity for women and girls but still struggles to attract anything like the attention given to the men's game.

Further reading: Patrick Brennan has brought together a great deal of information, with primary materials including photographs and newspaper reports, at this website.

Monday 28 March 2011

Tower Bridge behind the scenes

The bascules of Tower Bridge are currently stationary. As part of the current renovation, the bridge will not be lifted until early April - unfortunate for vessels wishing to pass through it, but lucky for those of us able to take tours behind the scenes. Tower Bridge Exhibition took the opportunity to offer regular engineering tours, including the chance to wander inside a bascule chamber.

We began our tour on the upper walks of the bridge, however. Originally, these were built as a means for pedestrians to continue crossing the bridge while the roadway was raised. However, given that opening and closing are pretty quick while there are a lot of stairs to the higher level, this route was never very popular. It became the haunt of prostitutes and suicides before being closed altogether in 1910. Now accessible once more as part of the Tower Bridge Exhibition, it offers views up and down the river as well as exhibitions on the bridge's history.

At road level, we went into the former control room. Today, the bridge is raised by buttons rather than these elegant levers. However, even the Victorian system for controlling the hydraulic machinery had built-in failsafes. The bridge would not open if the various operations were not carried out in the correct order.

The final stage of the tour took us properly backstage: down into an engine room and one of the bascule chambers. We saw one of the old lifting engines, which like the control room was full of gleaming metal and intriguing parts. Alongside it, the modern machinery is altogether more prosaic. Originally, a large steam engine (the final stage of our visit) pumped water into six accumulators. These kept the water under pressure until it was needed to drive the lifting engines. Today, each modern lifting engine does the job alone.

We walked further down, past one of the accumulators, and into the bascule chamber. 'Bascule' means 'seesaw', which explains how the bridge-raising works. A counterweight falls as the roadway lifts, and that counterweight sweeps into this space below the road. However, it doesn't make the grooves in either side wall: nobody is quite sure why they are there.

Our tour ended in the engine rooms generally open to the public. Here is the pumping engine which used to feed the accumulators. More bright and gleaming Victorian machinery awaited us; as I left and walked back over the bridge, it was with a new appreciation of this marvel of Victorian engineering and architecture.

Sunday 27 March 2011

From the archives: Wilton's Music Hall

Wilton's is one of London's hidden treasures, a rare music hall survival. Last year I visited for its 150th birthday celebrations; this year, a biography of former star turn Champagne Charlie is about to be published.

Yesterday, Wilton's Music Hall held an open day: a wonderful opportunity to explore this Victorian treasure near Tower Bridge. Now celebrating its 150th birthday, it is the oldest surviving grand music hall and the former home of Champagne Charlie.

The hall was built behind John Wilton's pub the Prince of Denmark (and neighbouring properties purchased for the land to their rear), and hosted a huge range of acts from opera to circus. Quickly built in 1859, and more quickly rebuilt after an 1877 fire, the auditorium did not have its own frontage but was entered through the pub. Since the latter was apparently the first in London to have mahogany fittings, it was also known as the 'Mahogany Bar'. The music hall had some similarly glamorous touches including barley twist columns which still survive, and a huge, elaborate gas chandelier which does not.

'Champagne Charlie', a 'swell' in evening dress carrying vintage Moet & Chandon, must have looked at home in such surroundings. His real name was George Leybourne, a former factory worker whose performing career began in northern music halls. He was rumoured to have been commissioned by Moet to write and sing in praise of champagne, and certainly did much to associate the drink with glamorous, fashionable life - especially as he himself lived the lavish lifestyle he sung of, drinking champagne and riding in a carriage drawn by four horses. However, the song was more enduring than Laybourne's own success for he died penniless in 1884 at about the time Wilton's music hall also reached its end.

New safety legislation caused the closure of many pub music halls at this time, and Wilton's barely outlasted John Wilton's death in 1880. The building found other uses: soup kitchen for the striking dockers of 1889; Methodist mission hall; and anti-fascist headquarters in the 1936 Battle of Cable Street. During the Second World War the building served as a local shelter; it was then a rag warehouse before being abandoned.

Wilton's Music HallSir John Betjeman, a founder of the Victorian Society, campaigned to save Wilton's from demolition in the 1960s and it is now listed. However, the building is deteriorating - its atmosphere of faded glamour and picturesque decay belies deeper structural problems. Wilton's Music Hall Trust are working hard to preserve this special space, described in World Monument Watch's list of 100 most endangered sites as a 'rare and remarkable monument to working-class leisure in nineteenth-century London'.

For more of my Wilton's Music Hall photos click here; there's another account of the open day here.

Thursday 24 March 2011

When bollards go bad

This bollard at Poplar Dock Cut appears to have erupted drunkenly out of the pavement. It lurches insolently, chippings scattered at its feet.

Of course, the rust hints at the truth: the bollard is really somewhat older than the brick paving. It's one of the reminders of Docklands' past, a little scruffy and out of place in the new landscape of modern flats and marinas.

Bollards are among the more humble items of street furniture, and yet many have their own stories to tell (like the eighteenth-century cannon outside the former Victualling Yard at Deptford). There's even a dedicated blog, Bollards of London, which features over a hundred in all their strange variety.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Lloyd's Four Elements

Last week, I shared the image of a pig from the 'four elements' bas reliefs in Lime Street. Created in the 1950s for the then-Lloyd's of London building, they contain references to the insurance business as well as a mixture of modern and mythological images. The reliefs are the work of sculptor James Woodford. They took three years to complete, and were finished in 1957.

Earth has a sower scattering seed; our pig and a rather surly sheep are at his feet. Fire has a phoenix and a fireman in rather anachronistic costume; air includes birds and, more prosaically, an aeroplane; and for water, we have Lloyd's lutine bell which rang to announce lost ships.

Monday 21 March 2011

Dusk from Tower Bridge

Here's an evening view of the Thames, taken from the upper walkway of Tower Bridge. I was at the beginning of an engineering tour of the bridge, of which more later.

Sunday 20 March 2011

From the archives: Old Kent Road & the hangman

The Old Kent Road had a key, if little-known, role in English judicial hangings. Here's the gruesome story.

John Edgington & Co on the Old Kent Road was known as a manufacturer of tents, flags and tarpaulins. Among their products in the late 1940s, they offered the Midge:
This tent (the lightest and most compact of its type obtainable) covers an area of 40 square feet and will accommodate two campers. Having only one pole and one guy-line, it is the quickest and easiest of all tents to erect. When packed, the tent is little larger than a Swiss Roll; erected, it measures 7 ft. 6 ins across its extreme width, 6 ft. deep and 5 ft. high. Fitted with overlapping doors, at the apex of which, protected by the porch, is an insect-proof ventilator.
Less obvious products like shipping bags for sewing machines and rick cloths to cover straw ricks were also made - but perhaps their most specialist item was hangman's rope. They received the government contract to supply these ropes in 1888; before that, the hangman had supplied his own. Each rope was made individually from Italian hemp; from the 1920s, the noose was covered with chamois leather and the ends of the rope with gutta percha. The firm even appeared in Picture Post in 1948, in an article on the death penalty (which Parliament had just debated suspending for five years). Their work ended for good in 1964, when the last hangings took place, although the death penalty for murder was not permanently abolished until 1969.

Thursday 17 March 2011

Charlton House

As I promised in the visit to Charlton village, here's a look at Charlton House. It has the air of a National Trust property, but is in fact owned by the council: hardly the destiny its original owners would have predicted.

Probably the work of architect John Thorpe, this impressive Jacobean mansion was built in 1612 for Sir Adam Newton, Dean of Durham and tutor to Prince Henry. At that time, it enjoyed an attractive rural location.

The Newton family held on to the house for 35 years before selling it to Sir William Dulcie, who later sold it on again to Sir William Langhorne. After he died, the house passed through his descendants, latterly the Maryon-Wilsons. This family has left its mark in Charlton, not least in the name of a park. However, it is perhaps only fair that they gave some green space back to local people: in 1829 they had enclosed the village green, leaving the former entrance gate now stood in the middle of this enlarged garden!

The house's history then followed a familiar pattern: in the First World War, it was used as a military hospital, and never returned to use as a private residence. Greenwich Council purchased it in 1925, and today it is a community centre, library and cafe.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Pig tales

No guesses yet on the whereabouts of this London pig, so here are a couple of clues:

- She's in the City of London;
- She's part of the 'earth' group on reliefs depicting the four elements.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Sunday 13 March 2011

From the archives: London Stone

Two years after I wrote about the London Stone, it is still imprisoned in its Cannon Street cage. Surely it deserves better treatment than this!

Imprisoned in a metal cage, London Stone is almost invisible to passers-by. It's in a neglected-looking building opposite Cannon Street Station, the former premises of the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation. When the bank was converted to a sports shop, the stone was nearly destroyed by a builder until the manager intervened. What a sorry situation for one of London's oldest mysteries.

Originally, the Stone was much bigger than the lump which survives today; it may have shrunk in the seventeenth century, but nobody knows for sure when or how this happened. It stood on the site of Cannon Street Station until 1742, when it was moved across the road. Half a century later, it was incorporated into a church, St Swithin London Stone, which survived the Blitz but was demolished in 1962. In 2006 it was announced that the current building was to be demolished and the Stone moved temporarily to the Museum of London, although this has not happened yet.

What is the stone's purpose? Nobody knows. The most popular explanation, with some centuries' pedigree, is that it was a Roman milestone from which high roads radiated and distances were measured. Alternatively, was it a prehistoric menhir, or part of an altar built by Brutus the Trojan, mythical founder of London?

In the middle ages, the Stone seems to have assumed a symbolic role as a place to pass laws and make proclamations. According to Shakespeare, Jack Cade struck his sword upon it in 1450 when he declared himself Lord of the City. The first Lord Mayor of London was Henry, son of Eylwin de Londenstane. There is even a myth that the Stone's safety and that of London are connected.

The Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers found a more prosaic purpose for the stone in the seventeenth century. They enforced standards of spectacle-making, and substandard pairs were broken on London Stone:
[In 1671] two and twenty dozen of English spectacles, all very badd both in the glasse and frames not fitt to be put on sale... were seized and taken away by the Master and the Wardens by vertue of the Charter of this Company and the Lord Maior's Warrant and carryed to Guildhall and there in the Maior's Court by a jury were found badd and deceitful and by judgement of the Court condemned to be broken, defaced and spoyled both glasse and frame the which judgement was executed accordingly in Canning Street on the remayning parte of London Stone where the same were with a hammer broken all in pieces.
It may be neglected today, but the legend and sense of the Stone's importance does persist. Let's hope that in future, it gets the setting it deserves.

Friday 11 March 2011

Spitalfields cigars

The 1891 census showed that Fashion Street was suitably full of tailors, dressmakers and furriers. There were also more intriguing occupations, too: a nudel sorter did indeed sort nudels! (If anybody knows exactly what that meant, I'd love to know.)

A large number of the street's residents were cigar makers. The raw material, tobacco, was imported from the USA and brought into bonded warehouses at Pennington Street alongside Tobacco Dock before being made into snuff, pipe tobacco, cigarettes or cigars. The area around Spitalfields and Whitechapel was the centre of cigar-making, with several companies based close to Fashion Street.

The cigar makers worked eleven-hour days, and wages were not high. Many were Jewish immigrants from the Netherlands (known as chuts) - a pattern apparent in Fashion Street, although a number of workers recorded their place of birth as Spitalfields and a few were Russian.

One young Dutch woman had a rather brief career in the London industry before returning to Holland, as this extract from her Old Bailey prosecution explains:
William Cappin: I am in the employment of Phineas Cohen, cigar maker, of 24, Hanbury Street—the prisoner has been his apprentice, and would be out of her time in about two months—I identify these twelve cigars as the property of my firm, by the tobacco we make, and the peculiar construction—I have no doubt about them being our make—we did not sell them, because these cigars could never have been purchased retail; we don't sell retail, and they could not have been purchased wholesale in this condition, because these are all sorts of colours, and they have not been packed or put in a box—the value of them is 1s. 6d.—I have seen the prisoner's mother this morning—she has come over from Holland, and says she would take her daughter back with her, and we don't wish to push the matter any further.
She was acquitted, and presumably did indeed return home with her mother.

While other local industries are remembered, cigar-making appears to have left little trace. Nonetheless, it was a significant form of Victorian East End industry which perhaps deserves more of our attention.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Nehemiah Wallington and the Witchfinder General

The marvellously-named Nehemiah Wallington wasn't a great historical figure himself. On the contrary, he was a wood turner. However, he did keep a diary - and he was also witness to some of the most interesting and disturbing events of the seventeenth century.

Wallington followed the activities of Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, in Manningtree. In 1645, Hopkins unearthed a supposed coven of local witches and obtained confessions under torture. Nineteen women were hanged as a result; another four died in prison. These events are recorded in Wallington's diary.

The diaries are also witness to Wallington's own religious anxieties. He was a Puritan, but suffered doubts about his salvation (to the point that he once attempted suicide). These journals were intended as a record of his sins and God's mercies: the volume containing the witch trials is entitled 'Great marcys [mercies] continued, or yet God is good to Israel'. This recording of both personal and public is what makes diaries such a rich historical source.

Mannington's diary is now at Tatton Hall Mansion - but no journey is required to see the volume describing the witch trials. John Rylands Library, funded by JISC, have digitised it: this account of the Witchfinder General's activities, in a contemporary's own words and handwriting, can now be read here.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Moorish Market, Fashion Street

Between Brick Lane and Commercial Street, Fashion Street offers a typical mix for the area: a minicab office, Bangladeshi food stores, creative agencies. The 1891 Census shows that most inhabitants of the north side of the street worked in tailoring and associated trades. That offers a tempting explanation for the street name, but in fact 'Fashion' is a corruption of the original 'Fossan Street'. Its south side is dominated, though, by an extraordinary building.

The Moorish Market was a Victorian shopping centre, planned as the Westfield of its day with 250 shops, a reading room and bathrooms. Abraham Davis had scaled down the plans by the time he opened his elaborate building in 1905: there were only 63 shops. The choice of a run-down, rather slummy street may seem surprising, but it seems that Davis counted on attracting traders from the nearby markets into the relative comfort and glamour of his indoor premises.

However, four years later the Moorish Market closed and Davis was evicted for non-payment of rent: he had failed to persuade local market traders to pay extra in order to escape the elements. Thankfully for Abraham, support from his brothers meant that this failure didn't end his construction career - although he concentrated upon housing projects, and shifted his efforts from the east end to north-west London. As well as building flats in Maida Vale and St John's Wood, he would both build in and become a councillor for St Pancras.

The next occupant of the Moorish Market was a factory, and it is presumably from this period that a painted 'works office' sign with manicule survives. Today, the structure has been extended and updated in order to house a range of educational and business tenants.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

International Women's Day centenary

Today marks 100 years of International Women's Day, celebrated every 8 March. It is now recognised by the United Nations and is an official holiday in many countries. Although its beginnings were smaller, even that very first IWD in 1911 saw over a million people attending rallies.

In 1910, a Socialist International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen and attended by women from 17 countries. When Clara Zetkin proposed an International Women's Day, there was unanimous approval and the first day was marked the following year on 19 March. The date was later fixed as 8 March, the date the 1917 Russian women's strike began; it ended when the Czar abdicated and women were granted the right to vote.

On that first IWD, women in Britain were unable to vote for or become MPs, to sit on juries or to enter many professions. Women were not awarded degrees by universities including Oxford and Cambridge. They could be paid less than men for the same work, and forced to leave their jobs on marriage. A great deal may have changed over the subsequent century, but IWD continues to highlight the need for further progress here and across the world.

Sunday 6 March 2011

From the archives: Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green

This Museum's current exhibition is Food, Glorious Food: a choice which echoes its earliest days, as I explain below.

Behind its new facade, the Museum of Childhood's building is an interesting piece of Victoriana in its own right. Its iron frame was originally part of the V&A's first, temporary building in South Kensington, and moved to the East End in 1866 to house a trade museum. The ground was purchased using subscriptions from local residents; the iron frame was filled in with red brick and panels illustrating various trades.

Inside, the marble mosaic 'fish scale' floor was made by women from Woking Gaol . The full title of the gaol was the 'Woking Invalid Convict Prison', and it was designed to house those suffering from mental or physical disabilities. The prison had a specialist Mosaics Department whose women earned 1s 2d a day breaking marble for the mosaics. As well as the Bethnal Green floor and work in South Kensington, they also provided a mosaic floor for the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral.

Bethnal Green Museum was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1872, and proved a great success with 1.5 million visitors in the first year. Permanent collections of food, animal products and French art combined with temporary visits by the Wallace, National Portrait and Pitt Rivers collections. The food collection had moved from the main museum and was 'arranged with the express object of teaching the nature and sources of food, representing the chemical composition of the various substances used as food, and the natural sources from which they have been obtained.' Admission to all this was free every day except Wednesday.

However, in the 1920s director Arthur Knowles Sabin began to shift the focus towards children, with exhibits and activities designed for them and the development of a children's collection. This eventually led to the Bethnal Green Museum's transformation in 1974 into the Museum of Childhood.

Friday 4 March 2011

Charlton village

It may be less well-known than other local features such as the Thames Barrier and Charlton Athletic Football Club, but Charlton village doesn't deserve such obscurity. As well as pubs and small shops, it boasts St Luke's Church, an Edwardian drinking fountain with rustic canopy, and the seventeenth-century Charlton House. All very different from the stereotypes of south-east London!

The drinking fountain and trough were erected to mark the coronation of Edward VII. Behind them is St Luke's Church, built in 1630 - although there has been a church on this site since the eleventh century. Among those buried in the churchyard is Spencer Perceval, a British prime minister now less notable for his political achievements than for the fact that he was assassinated in 1812.

Charlton House deserves, and will get, a post in its own right. This Jacobean building dominates the village centre, with gardens and parkland behind. It has been owned by Greenwich Council since the 1930s and inside are now a library, tea room, history exhibition and other community facilities.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Nine Inches North

On city pavements, metal studs marking the boundary of private property are a familiar sight. However, there's something quite satisfying about this alternative way of marking territory: a stone sign placed in the wall of a block of London County Council flats.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Hansom cab rank

Yesterday's photo of the Tower of London highlighted its size and extent, but in the foreground was something rather interesting too. The row of small horse-drawn carriages are hansom cabs: behold an Edwardian cab rank.

Named for its inventor, this quintessential London vehicle was actually designed by an architect from York (one Joseph Aloysius Hansom) and tested in Leicestershire. Nonetheless, it was well-suited to city life: light enough to be pulled by a single horse, fast and manoeuvrable, with a low centre of gravity for safe cornering. Hansom must have decided that he, too, was well-suited to the metropolis for he died in Fulham Road in 1882.

The hansom cabriolet was introduced to the city in the 1830s, and stayed on its street for a century. Although most were replaced by motor vehicles after the First World War, the last horse cab licence was only surrendered in 1947.

The driver's position is a little surprising, on top and to the rear of the vehicle (but perhaps less so than the original design, which had him sat on the roof directly above his passengers). Below and before him, two passengers could be comfortably seated in an enclosed cab. A hatch in the roof let them speak to him and pass up money for the fare. As for the amount to be paid, that did not have to be determined by taximeter until 1907 although such meters began to appear in the nineteenth century. The first models were clockwork, very different to the entirely electronic versions used today. It is the use of such a meter which makes a cab a taxi.

Although this Pathe newsreel depicts a wedding in Sydney, Australia, it does have very good footage of a hansom cab:

Further reading: here's a great description of a cab stand in 1860.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Souvenir of London: Tower of London

No scaffolding on the Tower and lines of horse-drawn vehicles in front show that this is an Edwardian image. However, more arresting than the vintage of the photograph is the elevated view over the Tower, highlighting just what an extensive complex it is.