Thursday 30 June 2011

St Malo, Dinan

The church of St Malo is, confusingly, in the nearby city of Dinan. It is named for one of Brittany's seven founder saints, a Welsh monk who travelled to Brittany in the sixth century and founded the eponymous town.

An unusual feature of this church is its English organ, made by Alfred Oldknow of Guernsey and installed in 1889. It was brought there thanks to two Englishmen living in Dinan, the chapel master John Lecoq and organist Frederic Arscott.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

St Pancras Renaissance (2)

If you're going to make your hotel a blend of old and new, you may as well begin at reception and that's just what the St Pancras Renaissance has done. The ground floor used to be bisected by a covered roadway for cabs; now, the beautifully-restored glass roof soars over the reception, bar and function room rather than tarmac and taxis.

The centrepiece of the hotel is its fine grand staircase. Perhaps best known for its role in a Spice Girls video in its days of faded glory, it is now fully restored and absolutely splendid. As elsewhere, there has been careful attention to detail with a reproduction of the original carpet covering the stairs.

The hotel was at the cutting edge when it first opened, with numerous firsts: hydraulic ascending rooms, electric bells in every room, and a ladies' smoking room. Yes, ladies could actually smoke here in public! (Not that the building was exactly organised on feminist principles, since most of the public rooms were for men only.) The lifts were a mixed blessing: they were so innovative that safety was somewhat lacking, and several people fell into the empty shaft when the lift wasn't there.

However, there were two serious shortcomings. First, the hotel had only five bathrooms for 300 rooms: a long way from the en suite facilities which would become the norm for luxury accommodation. Second, the hotel's fireproof construction meant its concrete floors were almost two feet thick, too thick to allow for the installation of new plumbing. It would decline in the twentieth century before closing altogether in 1935.

It's now open for business as a luxury hotel again. Even if the rooms are outside your budget, I'd very much recommend taking a guided tour.

Further reading: Lee Jackson of Victorian London has also visited, as has Londonist. The hotel has a PDF of its history here. Book your tour here or your room here.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

St Pancras Renaissance (1)

Renaissance is both the name of the hotel now open at St Pancras Station and an apt description of the rise in its fortunes. When the building first opened here in the 1870s, it was one of London's finest hotels; by the mid-twentieth century, it was facing demolition. Listing saved it but didn't do much for its fortunes: British Rail used it for offices, covering up and painting over many of its finest features, before it lost its fire certificate and closed.

Happily, the story didn't end there. External restoration in the 1990s was followed by internal works which returned St Pancras Chambers to its original role as a fine hotel, as well as converting part of the building into apartments. Reborn, this London landmark is enjoying glory days once more.

There's something about St Pancras which inspires real devotion. It's fitting, then, that the hotel has its own historian - whose involvement in the building began in its darker days. Royden Stock's guided tours are absolutely fascinating: he has a real depth of knowledge, as well as having witnessed the restoration process at first hand. However, before the tour I had time to take a few pictures of the exterior. In part two, we'll move inside.

The hotel was commissioned by the Midland Railway, who wanted it to overshadow their rivals next door at King's Cross. George Gilbert Scott, selected as architect, certainly did that - and yet the building we see is the economy version, which cost a mere £438,000. His original plans included another floor, but as the hotel building was exceeding its already huge budget he had to forego that on grounds of cost.

As well as being the finest railway terminus in London, the hotel was also to showcase Midlands materials, not least their red brick. Although a few niches have no statues, again in the interests of saving money, most visitors won't notice that amongst the wealth of other detail here. Even the drainpipes are suitably gothic.

Further reading: Lee Jackson of Victorian London has also visited. The hotel has a PDF of its history here.

Monday 27 June 2011

From the archives: Daily Express Buildings

Back to one of my Fleet Street favourites. I can't claim this is a good match for the sunny weather - seaside Art Deco in white and bright blue would have to win - but it is better adapted to London's normal skies!

I had always thought of the Daily Express Building, a piece of black-and-silver Art Deco on Fleet Street, as a purely London landmark. However, thanks to a post on the excellent new Lost in Manchester blog, I discovered that it is in fact one of three (with the final 'triplet' in Glasgow).

London's version was built between 1930 and 1932 by architects Ellis & Clarke with Sir Owen Williams. He had trained as an engineer before moving to architecture and was responsible for buildings including Wembley Stadium and the Peckham Pioneer Health Centre. After the war, he would build the M1 motorway.

The structure is concrete, with the basement originally holding the printing press and the journalists working on the upper floors. Lord Beaverbrook liked the fact that the glass curtain walls meant Londoners could see his journalists working into the night.

The exterior is a mixture of chromium, clear glass and blackVitrolite. Pilkington manufactured this pigmented glass in a range of colours; it was used for interior tiling as well as external facades. Peer through the gaps in the curtains and you might be able to see the reliefs and exuberant Deco flourishes in the lobby.

When new, the Express building was supposed to be 'Britain's most modern building for Britain's most modern newspaper'. However, it was parodied by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop and later nicknamed the Black Lubyanka.

The Manchester and Glasgow buildings are by the same architect (Glasgow was built in 1937 and Manchester in 1939) and have similar chrome, glass and vitrolite facades. None of the three are homes to the Daily Express any longer. The newspaper left Fleet Street in 1989; the building was subsequently restored to its current splendour and is now occupied by Goldman Sachs.

Friday 24 June 2011

All aboard for the necropolis!

The building on Westminster Bridge Road is now so unassuming at street level, you wouldn't even guess that it used to be a railway station. But that's exactly what it was - and for one of Britain's most unusual railways.

The burial of the dead has long been an issue for London. The eighteenth century saw resurrectionists digging up bodies to sell for surgical dissections; in the nineteenth century, the city's graveyards simply ran out of room. Since people didn't stop dying, highly unsavoury conditions resulted until the opening of the 'magnificent seven': a ring of cemeteries including Highgate, West Norwood and Nunhead, created in the 1830s and 1840s.

By the 1850s, there was another alternative: the expansion of the railways meant that the Home Counties were easily accessible by train. Why not bury the city's dead in the more spacious surroundings of Surrey? Brookwood Cemetery was opened in 1854, complete with its own railway and station to transport coffin and mourners from London. Since it shared much of its route with trains running from Waterloo, the London terminus had to be positioned nearby.

The station moved from its original site near Leake Street in 1902, when Waterloo Station expanded, and found a new location on Westminster Bridge Road. (Work had begun in 1900: hence the date on the facade.) The building was deliberately made fashionable and attractive to highlight Brookwood as a modern alternative to traditionally gloomy funeral providers. The archway was the entrance to the station behind, while the rooms above were offices. Originally the driveway was lined with palm and bay trees; lifts led up to the platform, where five waiting rooms allowed different funeral parties to keep apart.

All that was for first-class passengers, though: death may be the great leveller, but the Necropolis Railway kept social distinctions intact. These passengers would be attending a first or second-class funeral, the former offering more choice of grave location and the erection of a permanent memorial. If the mourners didn't want to travel out to Surrey, they could even have the funeral service in the station's chapelle ardente. If some of the mourners who did make the journey were not familiar faces to the rest of the party, that is probably because they were golfers taking advantage of the Necropolis Railway's lower fares to travel to the nearby West Hill golf course!

Third-class passengers used a side entrance, took stairs rather than lifts to their platform and shared a communal waiting room. These third-class funerals were for paupers; Brookwood not only gave them individual graves but also allowed funerals on Sunday when their family and friends could attend without missing work.

Not only the mourners but also the coffins enjoyed separate accommodation according to class. They were also divided into Church of England and other, so that your upper-class, Conformist loved one would not make their final journey in the company of a non-Conformist or member of the lower orders.

Trains would run from here until 1941, when part of the building as well as the tracks themselves were damaged in an air raid. The remaining station building became offices.

Thursday 23 June 2011

Flowers after rain

Between the rain showers, Cap Frehel showed its best summer colours. The moorland, separated from the sea by 70-metre-high granite cliffs, is covered in gorse and heathers. Drifts of vegetation stretch across the peninsula towards the lighthouses on the horizon. It's unsurprising that this is a haven for birds and wildlife.
Just a short distance inland, the vegetation changes utterly. Fields of ripening wheat are scattered with scarlet poppies, a note of rebellious colour among carefully-managed crops.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Final reel

Often, ghost signs feature products we still use made by brands we've long forgotten such as Daren bread or Criterion matches. This particular piece of redundant advertising, by contrast, features a brand that's still around. It's even still outside its original business.

However, while a few years ago this film postbox was as convenient as it's colourful, there's an air of redundancy now. Alongside it are windows full of digital equipment, and not a box of 35mm in sight.

Monday 20 June 2011

I scream, you scream...

This ice cream cornet would make a fitting companion for Hell's Hot Dog - although the ice cream parlour it's attached to is actually really good.

There's another cornet alongside. I can't decide whether it represents a dream or nightmare: all the ice cream you could ever eat, or a shrunken, hypothermic child?

Both are in Sables-d'Or-les-Pins, an extraordinary town on the Breton coast. It was created as a resort among sand dunes in the 1920s by Roland Brouard. Horses and sports cars raced there, jazz musicians gave concerts, a casino and a high-class restaurant were opened. The Wall Street Crash ended the resort's heyday, following which Brouard died impoverished.

In recent years, the resort has enjoyed a revival. Once more, the broad central avenue is full of appealing cafes, tourists walking and cycling, and a unique atmosphere. However, don't look too closely at the ice cream cones...

Sunday 19 June 2011

From the Archives: Ayres Street SE1

Many passers-by probably don't realise that this Borough street commemorates a local hero, a young woman who saved children from a fire at the cost of her own life. It has also been shaped by Victorian philanthropy.

This road may not be one of the best-known in Borough, but Ayres Street is more interesting than it first appears. The name should be familiar to regular readers: it was changed from Whitecross Street in tribute to Alice Ayres, who is also immortalised in Postman's Park.

Much of the streetscape would be unfamiliar to her today. Even the very Victorian White Cross Cottages postdate her death. They were built in 1890 by social reformer Octavia Hill, to designs by Elijah Hoole, as model social housing.

Hill was a reformer who campaigned for quality homes and open spaces for the poor. Her most famous achievement was the founding of the National Trust, but housing work was the primary theme of her working life. She began in 1864, leasing three slum properties in Marylebone, and had a portfolio of thousands of homes by the time of her death.

They were managed by a network of female volunteers (and later paid workers) who operated her system of weekly visits to collect the rent. Those visits allowed the women to check the state of the property as well as perform something of a social work role in getting to know the family and help with issues such as finding employment. Further, they ensured regular payment: vital as Hill operated on the 5% principle (investment in such philanthropic ventures should provide a 5% return on capital). Surplus rental income was put into projects including classes and children's playgrounds; tenants were closely involved in those decisions.

The housing scheme grew enormously, and gradually moved from refurbishing existing properties to building new ones as well - White Cross Cottages, along with nearby Red Cross Cottages, are perhaps the most notable survivors. Hill also took over the management of a large number of Church properties which had become slums, including some in Deptford.

Hill saw quality of life as depending on more than housing and also worked to provide amenities such as community halls. Her campaign for open spaces not only led to the National Trust but also involved her in seeking rights of access to common land and the transformation of disused graveyards into public space. Among her successes was the saving of Parliament Hill Fields from development. She was also involved in the establishment of the Army Cadets.

Most of Hill's principles were admirable: the emphasis upon the self-respect of tenants, small-scale, high-quality developments and tenant involvement. However, for all the radical nature of her housing work, Hill was conservative in other ways. She opposed state involvement in welfare provision, regretting the role of London County Council in providing social housing - thus failing to acknowledge that sometimes, concerted responses were needed to large-scale problems. She attached a great deal of importance to the domestic, seeing it as an appropriate role for women: although her female staff were increasingly paid employees, they were working at a local level in a domestic role. By contrast, she opposed women's involvement in national politics to which she believed they were ill-suited.

Octavia Hill has left a lasting legacy in many areas: housing policy, the establishment of professional housing managers, social casework, provision of public open spaces, and the National Trust itself. That legacy also survives in concrete form in such unassuming places as this Borough side-street.

Friday 17 June 2011


London may be suffering downpours right now, but Brittany is combining them with high winds. After waiting for a tree to be cleared from the road earlier today, we got home to find that this cherry tree has produced its last cerise. The annual race for the fruit - which the birds always won - will be no more!

Thursday 16 June 2011

Suffrage struggle online

The Women's Library holds fascinating archives which tell the story of the fight for women's suffrage, as recently recognised by UNESCO. Many of those items are now more accessible as they have gone online at VADS. Publicity material produced by suffrage campaigners themselves is complemented by photographs, drawings and items including Emily Wilding Davison's purse. She was holding it when she stepped in front of the King's horse at the 1913 Derby, suffering fatal injuries.

There's also a suffrage teaset, a nice reminder of one lesser-known aspect of the women's suffrage struggle. Not only was a range of merchandise produced, often in the suffrage colours of purple, green and white, but there were even dedicated shops. They combined fundraising, awareness-raising, and useful campaign space; the dedicated suffragist could not only serve tea in appropriate crockery but also play cards, wear clothing and read books on the 'votes for women' theme.

Image: poster, 1912, Women's Library, London Metropolitan University

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Giving blood

Today is World Blood Donation Day - a good time to start giving blood if you're eligible and don't already. However, the history of blood donation actually begins in seventeenth-century London.

Once William Harvey had published his account of the circulation of the blood in 1628, other eminent people became interested in this area. Sir Christopher Wren, better known as an architect, was the first person to inject fluids into animals' bloodstreams; in 1666, Richard Lower carried out blood transfusions between animals. The following year, he transfused sheep's blood into one Arthur Coga at the Royal Society, apparently without ill effects. However, there was outcry over such experiments in Britain and France and the work was not pursued (perhaps fortunately!).

Human blood transfusions only began again in the early nineteenth century with the work of London obstetrician James Blundell, but lack of knowledge about blood groups meant that they often weren't successful. When Dr Karl Landsteiner identified the four main groups, transfusions became truly possible just in time for the First World War.

The British Red Cross began organising donations in 1921. Today, the national service is well-developed but still struggles to find enough donors. If you're interested in donating, there's all the information you could want here - and don't forget that as well as saving lives, you also get free tea and biscuits!

Monday 13 June 2011

Who is this?

I'm cheekily reviving a post from last year because this puzzle is still unsolved! All suggestions very gratefully received.

I've added another cup to my lithophane collection. There's a problem, though: I don't know whom it depicts. The front of the cup has a monogram of JW and the dates 1870-1911, but I'm afraid that hasn't helped me much.

Does anyone have any idea who this might be?

Sunday 12 June 2011

From the archives: St Botolph Without Aldersgate

Two years ago, I went inside this church for the first time. I've combined the resulting two posts into one here.

Although I've visited Postman's Park many times, the Celebration last Wednesday was my first opportunity to visit its neighbouring church, St Botolph Without Aldersgate. The saint has four churches in the London: the others are at Aldgate, Billingsgate and Bishopsgate. All were built at at around the same time by the major city gates, for Botolph was patron saint of travellers.

This City church, like most, was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666, but its history stretches back to the eleventh century when a priory and hospital were here. St Botolph's was rebuilt in 1788 by architect Nathaniel Wright. A classical facade was added in 1831, but the exterior remains essentially simple.

By contrast, the interior is pretty stunning. It was designed by Nathaniel Evans in 1788, although later fittings and furnishings have been added.

The east end of the church includes an impressive window - not stained glass but a 'transparency' (a painting on glass). It is the only one of its kind in the city, painted by James Pearson in 1788. By contrast, the stained glass windows are all Victorian or later.

Another distinctive feature is the organ, also dating from the rebuilding and the only surviving Samuel Green organ in the City.

St Botolph's Without Aldersgate also contains some fine memorials. Two seventeenth-century examples feature impressive skulls:

Elizabeth Richardson, wife of Sir Thomas, is not only depicted visually on her memorial but also given a brief biography. Eldest daughter of Sir William Hewytt of St Martins in the Fields, she was mother of ten children (7 sons, 3 daughters). She died on 24 January 1639; her husband survived her and expressed his 'irreparable loss' in the monument. He described her character thus: 'she was a fitt patterne for all women of honor, pietie, & religion; Dead, is lamented by all that knew her". One son and one daughter were buried with her.

Friday 10 June 2011

Ghost signs (55): the Loire

These wonderful photos were taken by Beth of oxo cube editorial and Londonist. The signs are near Saumur, in the Loire.

My favourite is the unusual Dubonnet advert above, with the name split over two lines and a fairly realistic image of the bottle. It seems to have been a later version of the brand's advertising, and perhaps the experiment wasn't a great success because variations on the classic blue design below remain more common.

Forvil was a popular hair product, the equivalent of Britain's Brylcreem. This advert still suggests you 'demand Forvil brilliantine', although it presumably draws less of a response among contemporary men.

On the sign below, you can just about make out the words 'machine a laver' underneath 'Lincoln'. It's a reminder that in France, Lincolns were household appliances rather than motorcars.

Finally, a brand as familiar in Britain as in France: Martini.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Peuter and Raysons

Along with their intrinsic interest, one of the enjoyable features of seventeenth-century texts is their often idiosyncratic spelling. The records of the Old Bailey relate how on 28 February 1681,
Richard Eaton received his Tryal, for Robbing a Ship lying at Deptford , and taking thence one Sea bed, with Rugs, Blankets and other Furniture, as likewise Peuter, and about sixty pounds of Raysons , being the goods of Thomas Daniel , the whole being offered to sale were stopt and he apprehended: he pleaded he bought them at Chatham, but not being able to prove it, he was found Guilty.
A less charming feature, to the modern reader, is the apparent reversal of the burden of proof. Eaton seems to have been expected to prove his own innocence!

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Boundaries and building

This St Mary Islington parish marker, near the junction of Upper Street and Liverpool Road, is unusual for listing the churchwardens who placed it there. One of these made his mark on the local landscape in other ways, too.

James Wagstaff was a local property developer, involved in building projects around Canonbury and Highbury Crescent. He lived in Highbury Lodge and, despite his role in shaping the area, was listed in several sources as 'gentleman' or 'esquire'. However, a more realistic insight into his professional life is given by an 1847 theft case. As the victim, he gave evidence of how
I am a surveyor—I live in Albion-terrace, Canon-bury-square, lslington—I have a yard at the back of my premises, where I keep building materials—I know this kitchen range, it is mine—I lost it from my yard three or four days before I was before the magistrate, which was on the 19th of Feb.—my yard is enclosed by a wall—the gates are kept locked...
His fellow churchwardens have left less obvious trace, although John Shadgett lived in Liverpool Road and was also a 'gentleman'.Their appointment as churchwardens was itself a confirmation of their social status.

Monday 6 June 2011

From the archives: Mungo Murray, shipwright author

One of Deptford's less-known notables, Mungo Murray brought a scientific approach to his work on shipbuilding.

Mungo Murray was a shipwright in eighteenth-century Deptford. Unlike most such men, his name is still remembered today, for he wrote a treatise on ship-building and navigation. To the Victorian historian Nathan Dews, it was 'the only English Treatise on ship-building that can lay any claim to a scientific character; and [Murray] was a man "whose conduct was irreproachable".'

Murray was born near Perth in about 1705, and came to Deptford's naval dockyard in 1738 as a shipwright; it is not known where he completed his apprenticeship. His book was published in 1754, and makes clear his relatively modest position by acknowledging 'the great obligation I am under to the principle officers and gentlemen in his majesty's service, not only in the yard where I have the happiness to be employed, but in several others'. More revealing is the fact that he was using the book to advertise for extra income:

The several Branches of Mathematicks treated of in
this Book are expeditiously taught by the AUTHOR, at
his House in Deptford; where may be had all Sorts of Sliding
Rules and Scales: As also Sectors for delineating Ships, Diagonal
Scales, &c. on Brass, Wood or Paste-board. Attendance from
six to eight every Evening, except Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Murray's fortunes seem to have improved after the publication of his first book. Lord Howe appointed him (under the title of midshipman) as a mathematics and navigation teacher on board his ships Magnanime and Princess Amelia. Among his pupils was Henry, Earl of Gainsborough to whom Murray dedicated his next book (a navigation textbook). He would go on to publish several more volumes before his death in 1770.

Saturday 4 June 2011

Langoustines on the Thames

The Amity II spends most of its time fishing in the North Sea, but has spent the last few days in the rather tamer waters of the Thames. This fishing trawler and its captain Jimmy Buchan visited London to promote Scottish seafood, raise money for the Fishermen's Mission, and launch Buchan's autobiography. (He has already starred in the BBC series Trawlermen.)

It was hard to resist the opportunity to visit a trawler, and the promise of seafood tasting made it irresistible! The haddock and langoustines were both excellent; it's a great shame that British seafood is not highlighted in our shops and supermarkets in the way that Breton produce routinely is in Brittany.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Discovering London

Among the people I met at last night's London Historian drinks was Peter, author of Discovering London. This great blog is full of fascinating information about the city, not to mention a prize quiz on London's elephants. It made me realise how many of the animals are wandering the city streets: I recognise a few, but by no means all 21!

Londonist has already highlighted the huge pride of lions in London. What other animals feature heavily in this architectural menagerie? (The City of London dragon pictured here doesn't count, being mythological...)