Friday 29 April 2011

Charles I's startled steed

Just in front of Nelson's Column is a small traffic island, famous as the point from which distances to London are measured. Charing Cross originally stood here (the memorial cross rather than the railway station which took its name); today, it's occupied by an equestrian statue of Charles I looking towards the spot where he was beheaded.

The statue was famously as unpopular as the king himself with Parliamentarians during the Civil War. It was given to a brazier named John Rivet for melting down - but instead he buried it, ensuring its survival until the Restoration. However, he didn't lose out by this gesture - while the statue was lying out of sight, he made plenty of money selling knives and forks whose handles were supposedly made from its brass.

It has sat on its current site since 1671. Although rich in history, I like it for a more frivolous reason - this must be the most alarmed-looking horse in London!

Wednesday 27 April 2011

City cows

This shop is a rare remainder of the Welsh dairies once common throughout London. It's hard to imagine today, but once cows were kept and milked in the heart of the city - one way to ensure fresh milk!

Not that freshness alone guaranteed that milk was good. In his memoir of mid-Victorian life, Alfred Rosling Bennett describes cows being brought through the streets directly to customers and milked then and there. However,
our milkman said that if people could only see the quantity of water "them poor cows" were compelled to drink before starting, they would cease to wonder that the milk was so thin and blue.

Monday 25 April 2011

Virgin Mary, Cancale

Many Breton homes have niches on their facades, homes to statues of the Virgin Mary. The fishing port of Cancale was no exception; here is one worn and weathered example. Others are now so valuable that they are protected behind glass.

The residents had good reason to seek her intercession, since Cancale was a cod-fishing port in the late nineteenth century. Between 1885 and 1900, 147 fishing boats left the town for Newfoundland. The voyage was long and perilous, with dangers ranging from storms and fogs to icebergs, but the potential earnings made it worthwhile. For those about to depart and those waiting at home for them to return, these statues provided reassurance. Today, the local industries - oyster-farming and tourism - are undoubtedly safer, but these protectors remain to watch over the port's inhabitants.

Sunday 24 April 2011

From the archives: Deptford thief-taking

The history of crime and policing is often rather murky, and few aspects are more dubious than the eighteenth-century practice of thief-taking. Catching an offender was so lucrative that the trade attracted plenty of its own criminal practices.

Before the advent of the modern police force, sometimes questionable ways of addressing crime had to be found. One of the most controversial was the use of rewards to thief-takers. While the idea of paying a reward to somebody helping solve a crime is apparently straightforward and remains in use today, it caused enormous problems in the eighteenth century as the work of the thieftaker became discredited.

Thanks to the generous sums on offer, especially for serious crimes such as highway robbery, a new profession grew up. Thieftakers dedicated themselves to catching criminals and recovering stolen goods to earn this bounty - but the result was not as simple as professional if unofficial policing. These men generally relied upon intelligence to achieve results, and so were close to criminal culture. Sometimes very close. In fact, so close that they were often criminals themselves - famously, Jonathan Wild would negotiate the return of stolen property for a fee; but his success in locating it turned out to be because his gang of thieves had stolen it in the first place! He would even turn in some thieves, either rivals or associates who had fallen out of favour, for further rewards.

Some went further and lured others into offending so that they could then betray them and collect the reward. An example of the latter occurred in Deptford in 1756:
Yesterday 7 night at the Old Bailey, those notorious thieftakers, Stephen Macdaniel, John Berry, James Egan, and James Salmon, were tried and convicted, upon the clearest evidence, for conspiring together to procure Peter Kelly and John Ellis, two young lads, to commit a robbery on the highway on him the said Salmon, in the parish of Deptford, in July 1754, in order by their conviction, to entitle them not only to the rewards payable by the statute,* but the further rewards offered by the inhabitants of that parish for the apprehending of robbers, for robberies committed there; and for which artificial robbery those young lads were afterwards condemned to die at the then ensuing assizes for the county of Kent, tho’ happily reprieved by the discovery of this conspiracy, thro’ the vigilance of Mr Cox, the high-constable of that parish, before the time fixed for their execution.

And Yesterday Macdaniel and Berry stood on the pillory, pursuant to their sentence, in Holborn, opposite Hatton-Garden; Egan and Salmon are to stand on Monday next in Smithfield. The second time, Macdaniel and Berry the 2d of April in Cheapside, opposite King-street; and Egan and Salmon, the 5
th of Aril, near Fetter-lane, Fleet-street; and to find security for their good behaviour for three years.
* An Act of 1692, providing for a £40 reward for apprehending and prosecuting highwaymen. They would also get the felon's horse, weapons and other goods.

Friday 22 April 2011

Faces of Twinings

In 1706, the Twinings tea company was founded by one Thomas Twining, a converted coffee house owner. The beverage caught on with the public, and his company has prospered ever since - but his first shop still survives on the Strand. Today, it also includes a small museum; here is a detail of the distinctive facade.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Rochester Castle

I first saw this impressive building towering over the railway station; here's a closer view, taken from just across the road. Once almost impenetrable, it's now an English Heritage property and very much open to visitors.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Ben Pimlott Building

A New Cross Road landmark: the Ben Pimlott Building, Goldsmiths College. The 'scribble' is made from 229 separate pieces of metal.

Monday 18 April 2011


I'm on holiday! I'd like to be so organised that I have a vacation's worth of in-depth posts prepared, but I'm barely organised enough to make it to the airport. While I'm away, then, I'll be sharing a selection of short posts and photographs.

Our first is an alternative view of Montmartre. It's a tall, white building but it's not Sacre Coeur - just a rather eye-catching water tower. (The French name is more impressive, though: chateau d'eau.)

Sunday 17 April 2011

From the archive: Landes de Cojoux

Let's make another Sunday visit to Brittany, this time to the amazing prehistoric monuments of Cojoux.

Brittany is rich in neolithic remains, and on Monday I visited an area second only to Carnac in importance. The Cojoux moor above the village of Saint Just is liberally scattered with stone age monuments. Not only their quantity but also their variety impress the visitor: in a few miles' walk, you can see menhirs, dolmens, alignments, tumuli, circles and gallery graves. Some even have later Bronze Age monuments superimposed onto them. Thanks to a 7km (4 mile) walk and a series of information boards, exploring is easy with something of interest at every turn.

Some of the monuments were clearly graves, but the function of others is more open to speculation. However, later legends have sprung up to account for them: thus the two white demoiselle menhirs are supposed to be young women who went dancing instead of attending mass, and were literally petrified as a result.

Friday 15 April 2011

A Deptford whale

Whales in the Thames are not unknown, but they're certainly unusual. When one swam up the river a few years ago, the media followed its every move. The public was equally fascinated in 1842 - but the poor animal had met with a very different reception. While efforts were made to save its modern counterpart, the Victorian stray was killed and immediately put on public display.

On Sunday 23 October, a young whale made its way to Deptford Pier. There, it was spotted by watermen who immediately set off in armed pursuit. The Illustrated London News describes what followed:
Five of them put off in their boat, and one of them, armed with a large bearded spear, commenced the attack upon the monster, which soon showed symptoms of weakness, and threw up large quantities of water from the aperture on its back. The other boats surrounded the animal and pushed it along with their boat-hooks close under the pier, where they finally despatched him, and with strong cords and pullies raised him, with much difficulty, upon the pier. In a short time afterwards such immense numbers of persons congregated to gratify their curiosity, that Mr John Taylor, the high constable of Deptford, was compelled to call for the aid of the R division of the police to keep order.

The gory spectacle over, the whale was moved to the Bull and Butcher pub in Old King Street and put on display. No time was lost in circulating publicity material:
On the Premises of Mr. Williams,
Old King Street, Deptford,
Yesterday, (Sunday,) October 23rd 1842,
By a Number of Watermen.
The above measures in length above 20 Feet; in circumference 10 Feet, and weighs above 2 Tons.
May be viewed daily, from 9 o’Clock in the morning till 10 o’Clock at Night.
The Illustrated London News account identifies it as a finback whale, 14 feet 6 inches long (it seems to have grown in the flyer quoted above). It also suggested how the whale came to be in such an unlikely location: 'He is supposed to have gone blind in the river while in pursuit of herrings.'

In 1891, a writer to the Kentish Notebook suggested that after being displayed in Deptford, the whale went on to be shown at the Half Moon Inn in Borough. Finally, it was dissected and its skeleton given to the British Museum.

Perhaps even more strangely, this was not the first Deptford whale. John Evelyn described one meeting an equally brutal end there in June 1658:
A large whale was taken betwixt my land butting on the Thames and Greenwich, which drew an infinite concourse to see it, by water, coach, and on foote, from London and all parts. It appeared first below Greenwich at low water, for at high water it would have destroyed all the boats; but lying now in shallow water, incompassed with boats, after a long conflict it was killed with a harping yron, struck in the head, out of which it spouted blood and water by two tunnells, and after a horrid grone it ran quite on shore and died. Its length was fifty-eight foote, height sixteen, black skin'd like coach-leather, very small eyes, greate taile, and onely two small finns, a picked snout, and a mouth so wide that divers men might have stood upright in it; no teeth, but suck'd the slime onely as thro' a grate of that bone which we call whale-bone; the throate yet so narrow as would not have admitted the least of fishes. The extremes of the cetaceous bones hang downwards from the upper jaw; and was hairy towards the ends and bottom within-side; all of it prodigious; but in nothing more wonderful than that an animal of so greate a bulk should be nourished onely by slime through those grates.

Image: Illustrated London News, 29 October 1842, 'catching a whale off Deptford Pier'

Thursday 14 April 2011

On the demon drink

If lectures on malt liquors and fermentation interest you, it may seem a pity that this particular series happened back in 1838. However, if you were hoping for a few samples to taste you would have been sorely disappointed: these were organised by the New British & Foreign Temperance Society. Among the later talks was the intriguing 'non-existence of alcohol in any natural production', perhaps not the most scientifically sound account!

These were the early days of the temperance movement, and the Society had been founded only a few years before. It had been in Deptford for at least two years, and the lecture series suggests that it had attracted adherents in the area.
Old & New Kent Road Branch

Mason Street, near New Cross Turnpike.
Under the Superintendence of the Committee of the above Branch,
in the following Order:-

On Malt Liquors, by Mr. F. GROSJEN.

On Fermentation, by Mr. DART.

On the Anatomical Structure of Man, by Dr. OXLEY.

Non-existence of Alcohol in any Natural Production, by Mr. DART.

Physiological Nature and Effects of Alcoholic Drinks, by H. V. GARMAN, Esq.

Doors open at Half-past 6; Lectures to commence at 7 o’Clock precisely.
Free Admission to the Public. No Collection.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Cartier Circle

Among the art scattered around Canary Wharf is a relatively new addition at the east entrance. The focal point of a landscaping project completed last year is this sculpture of 17 bronze posts. When I saw it a few weeks ago, it reflected both the spring sunlight and the vertical lines of the development behind.

The press release doesn't contain any mention of the artist's name. Is this an accidental omission, or are these shining posts considered more 'decoration' than 'art'?

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Market post

This Victorian postbox is in a particularly convenient location, Oxford's Covered Market. That makes it handy not only for shopping, but also for staying out of the cold and rain!

Sunday 10 April 2011

From the archives: the Black Friar

Where better to spend a Sunday than with the Black Friars? These particular monks are especially cheerful as they're to be found at one of London's most distinctive pubs.

One of London's more extraordinary pubs commemorates the Dominican priory which once stood nearby. It was a wealthy and powerful institution, closely connected to government; indeed, the Privy Council often met there and it served as a depository for state records. However, since the monastery was dissolved during the Reformation and the pub not built until 1875 and remodelled in 1905, its designers were free to indulge in a fantasy version of monastic living. Thus the Black Friar, at the northern end of Blackfriars Bridge, is an elaborate riot of monks enjoying good food and good drink. What's more, they encourage the passer-by to join in the fun:

Well, how could I resist? Inside, architect H Fuller-Clarke and artist Henry Poole have filled the space with metal reliefs, mosaics and stained glass. The style is heavily influenced by Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts.

A back room was later added, filled with mottos (none of which discourage the visitor from eating or drinking!)

And what better message for a Thursday afternoon than this:

Friday 8 April 2011

Middlesex Hospital Chapel

One of the odder sights visible from the BT Tower is the former Middlesex Hospital. Most of the buildings have disappeared, leaving an expanse of bare ground; in the centre, the chapel remains.

Although it had been on the same site since the mid-eighteenth century, Middlesex Hospital was rebuilt between 1928 and 1935. However, it closed in 2005 and was demolished in 2008. Several redevelopment plans have fallen through, so the site remains almost empty.

Thanks to being listed, the Italian Gothic chapel has survived. Work began on it in 1891 under architect John Loughborough Pearson; he died before it was completed, so his son Frank took over until completion in 1929. It formed the heart of the complex, with the later buildings constructed around it. Today, it looks bereft without that context.

There are images of the interior here.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Inside BT Tower

For many Londoners, the BT Tower is one of our most frustrating landmarks. Originally housing a revolving restaurant, it has been firmly closed to the public for years. When a rare opportunity arose to get inside, I leapt at the chance. (And leapt into the lift, although many people took the stairs instead.)

The tower looms over Fitzrovia, standing 620 feet high if you include the aerials at the top (which makes it all the stranger that it was an official secret until the 1990s!). It was first known as the Post Office Tower when completed in 1965, but has gone through regular rebranding: London Telecom Tower and British Telecom Tower followed, with BT Tower just the latest in this series of names.

Its primary purpose was to transmit high-frequency radio waves - the first such purpose-built tower - but it was a popular tourist attraction as well. As well as the restaurant, there were viewing galleries and a gift shop. That all began to seem more risky in 1971 when a bomb exploded in the men's toilets. It was not until 1980, though, that the restaurant lease expired and it was closed. All public access ended in 1981; recent plans to reopen the restaurant seem to have quietly faded away.

It was very exciting, then, to actually get inside one of the two lifts and ascend at 1400 feet a minute to the top of the tower. A clear, sunny day meant views right across London. Inside, the space is now used for corporate events and is rather more contemporary in style than the exterior - and very round! Even the toilets on the floor above are arranged like spokes around the centre. Getting to them meant that I took a few steps up the very narrow spiral staircase - it was easy to understand why the lifts are also needed for fire evacuation,* and to sympathise with those who had climbed the tower on foot.

*Using lifts when there's a fire is of course not usually allowed, so Parliament gave special permission.

There are more photos on flickr. For photos of the restaurant, and a specimen menu, click here.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Green light for Wolverhampton

I won't pretend that this is the most scenic view of Wolverhampton: it isn't. However, it does have historic significance, because you're looking at the site of the first automatic traffic lights in Britain.

They weren't actually the first traffic lights: those were installed outside the Houses of Parliament on 9 December 1868. Being the work of a railway manager, John Peake Knight, they worked rather like railway signals. Semaphore arms and red and green lights directed (horse-drawn) traffic. They were more visible to many more vehicles than the arm signals from policemen hitherto used to control traffic. The innovation was popular until disaster struck: the gas lamp exploded, injuring the policeman operating it, and the experiment was abandoned.

Over half a century later, the next attempt was made in Princes Square, Wolverhampton. Traffic lights had been used for several years in the United States before making their debut here in 1927. This time, the experiment was a success and traffic lights would become a familiar feature on our roads. However, the striped posts of the modern Wolverhampton lights commemorates the significance of this spot.

Sunday 3 April 2011

From the archives: the devil's rock

It's been a little while since I've posted about Brittany, so with the spring weather back this seems a good time to return to one of my favourite walks there.

I'll soon be visiting Brittany, where every stone seems to have a name and a story. La Roche au GĂ©ant in the village of Lanrelas is no exception. Indeed, rising suddenly as it does to more than a person's height above the path, it seems to demand some kind of myth. Its name means 'the giant's rock', although there is also an alternative: the devil's rock. The latter is explained by a local legend, according to which the stone was used for many years by the devil as a gateway from hell. Each dark and moonless night, he would wander the parish seizing the souls of its unhappy or dishonest residents. However, there came a night when the devil could find only one soul: that of a grief-stricken priest. He brought him up to the rock, where he cut off his arms, legs and head. The spots where they rested before being devoured can still be seen (with some imagination) on the top of the rock.

The alternative legends are barely more cheerful, tending to involve the use of the rock by a giant for human sacrifice. However, today the site is far from menacing: the stones are covered with moss and surrounded by trees, with the river Rance (little more than a stream as yet) dancing below. Paths lead along the riverside, around the rock and to a menhir in the field above; there is even a picnic area, with no sightings of devils or giants reported!