Sunday 31 July 2011

From the archives: Deptford's corsair connection

As the Museum of London Docklands explores London's pirate links, here's the story of Deptford's privateer connection.

Deptford, like Saint Malo, has its connections with licensed pirates: not corsairs but privateers. The most famous of these was Francis Drake, who was knighted by Elizabeth I in Deptford. He is often seen as one of England’s great naval heroes, but was also a slave trader and unscrupulous adventurer.
Like his Breton counterparts, Drake started his career young, first going to sea before he was thirteen. When the ship’s owner died, he left the ship to the 20-year-old Drake who now became its master. Before long, he was sailing to the Americas – and participating in the slave trade - and in 1569 was captured by the Spanish, although he managed to escape. He thereafter devoted himself to acting against Spain.

We remember that Drake sailed around the world, but perhaps not why. The purpose of his voyage was to attack the Spanish: the Queen saw him as a privateer, but to Spain he was no more than a pirate and a large reward was offered for his capture. His voyage in the Golden Hindwas helped enormously by his capture of Spanish charts, and even a Spanish captain experienced in navigating South American waters. He also took more traditional treasure of gold, silver and jewels.
Drake had departed from Deptford in 1577, visiting St Nicholas's Church before he left. The Golden Hindreturned to Deptford in April 1581 and Elizabeth I came onto the ship for dinner. Impressed by the value of his cargo (she was entitled to a half share) and his achievement in being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, she knighted Sir Francis on board. (Pointless bit of trivia: his actual dubbing with the sword was carried out by the French ambassador the Marquis de Marchaumont, not the Queen herself).

When war between England and Spain broke out a few years later, in 1585, Drake gained a more respectable position as vice-admiral. He was second in command of the fleet which fought the Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion of England. Nonetheless, his privateering instincts still took precedence over more official concerns: he was willing to momentarily put aside his official role when profit was to be made. Thus, acting as privateer more than vice-admiral, he captured the gold-laden Spanish galleon Rosario as it fled up the English Channel. No doubt the corsairs of Saint Malo would have approved.

Friday 29 July 2011

Bradshaw, railway pioneer

210 years ago today, George Bradshaw was born in Lancashire; he spent most of his life in Manchester. His work would have huge impact on the Victorian railways, but he wasn't an engineer, surveyor or financier. Instead, he provided another essential for passengers: the timetable.

Each company had its own timetable, of course; the problem was, there were about 150 of them in the mid-nineteenth century. Bradshaw's inspired idea was to compile them into a single volume. That made life much easier for the traveller who wanted to plan a journey beyond their local line, so unsurprisingly the books were a great success.

The original title of Bradshaw's Railway Timetables and Assistant to Railway Travelling was just a touch on the long side, so the second year of publication, 1840, saw a change to the much snappier Bradshaw's Railway Companion. Over time, the book became such a feature of British life that it could be referred to simply as Bradshaw's. Even Count Dracula read it before travelling to England!

In the 1920s, the number of railway companies was reduced to four; in 1948, they were nationalised into British Rail. The need for Bradshaw was therefore diminishing, and publication ceased in May 1961. However, for over a century Bradshaw's had been a central part of railway travel.

Image: George Bradshaw, from Wikipedia.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Underground listed

Sixteen London Underground stations have just been listed on the advice of English Heritage - the BBC have some good vintage photographs. (One idiosyncracy of the list is that Oxford Circus appears twice: although we think of it as a single station, it has two buildings.) These not the first on the network to be listed: there are 72 in total on English Heritage's National Heritage List.

The full list of protected underground stations now includes Acton Town, Aldwych, Arnos Grove, Baker Street, Balham, Barking, Barkingside, Baron's Court, Belsize Park, Boston Manor, Bounds Green, Bow Road, Brent Cross, Caledonian Road, Chalk Farm, Chesham, Chiswick Park, Clapham Common, Clapham South, Cockfosters, Colliers Wood, Covent Garden, Ealing Common, Earls Court, East Finchley, East Ham, Eastcote, Farringdon, Fulham Broadway, Gloucester Road, Great Portland Street, Harrow & Wealdstone, Hendon, Holloway Road, Hounslow West, Kennington, Kew Gardens, Kilburn, Loughton, Maida Vale, Moorgate, Mornington Crescent, Notting Hill Gate, North Ealing, Northfields, Oakwood, Oxford Circus (twice), Paddington (District & Circle), Park Royal, Perivale, Piccadilly Circus, Rayner's Lane, Redbridge, Ruislip, Russell Square, South Kensington, South Wimbledon, Southgate, St James's Park, St John's Wood, Sudbury Hill, Sudbury Town, Tooting Bec, Tooting Broadway, Turnpike Lane, Uxbridge, Wapping, West Acton, West Brompton, Willesden Green and Wood Green.

Monday 25 July 2011

Weird waters

Harrogate was transformed from a couple of hamlets into an elegant town because of its mineral waters. Its motto spells that out: arx celebris fontibus, 'a town famous for its springs'. There are many of them, high in varied combinations of sulphur, iron and salt.

Following their discovery in 1571, the town became a spa destination. It continued developing thereafter; the Royal Bath Hospital and Royal Pump Room built in the early nineteenth century were among the features which attracted notable visitors. Only in the twentieth century did the number of people taking the waters decline.

It seemed wrong, then to visit the town without trying the waters, still available at the Royal Pump Room which is now a charming museum. (There is also a tap from another spring, provided for the poor, on the wall outside.) After all, the many visitors of the nineteenth century would drink three or four glasses a day for their health so it must be good, surely?

The first clue that this might not have been the wisest decision was the information that the water has the highest sulphur content of any European well. The second was the big bowl of Farrah's toffees (another local speciality) right alongside. Then there was the tiny amount poured out. However, common sense rarely gets in the way of a historical experience, so I took the glass...

... and smelled the water. Well, the sulphur was certainly apparent! However, I've drunk a glass of Bath's spa water and survived, so surely I could manage a sip of this. It probably tastes better than it smells, right?

Very wrong, actually: it was truly disgusting. Imagine rotten egg mayonnaise, salted. Only less pleasant. Even the toffee didn't altogether take the taste away; my mouth twitched every time I thought about it for hours afterwards! It even managed to repeat on me, not something one expects from a swallow of water. Suddenly, its medicinal properties made perfect sense: if the alternative was ingesting this several times a morning, I'd claim to be cured of whatever ailed me.

At least nobody expects you to drink from the petrifying well in nearby Knaresborough. However, it is pretty gruesome in its own way: since anything exposed to its waters will be coated in stone within a few months, there are strings of objects hung there to undergo petrification. Most are teddy bears; in various stages of stoniness, they do look somewhat macabre.

Luckily, I was soon reconciled to the local waters by a morning in the beautiful Turkish baths. The original Victorian building has been beautifully restored, providing elegant surroundings for a relaxing morning. The cafe does serve Harrogate water, but this time it's the local mineral water: an altogether more appetising drink!

Sunday 24 July 2011

From the archives: Deptford dockyard chips

Not the potato sort - 'chips' were offcuts of wood. A valuable perk for shipyard workers, they were often substantial in size.

In the eighteenth century, the most valuable perquisite (perk) of the naval shipwright's job was the right to remove chips. The term referred to offcuts of timber up to six feet in length, which the shipwrights would carry home on their shoulders. There was allegedly abuse of this right, with shipwrights sawing down planks to just below the maximum length - in work time - before carrying them away. Quality may also have been affected, with allegations that workers took the seasoned wood, leaving green wood for the actual shipbuilding. The right also cost the Royal Dockyards a great deal, estimated by William Sutherland in 1726 at £93,000 per year. It is unsurprising, then, that the shipyards tried to control the taking of chips while the workers did their best to minimise restrictions on it.

The perk was jealously protected: in 1739, Deptford workers went on strike over an attempt to make them unbundle their loads when they left the shipyard. 1758 saw further unrest here when they were told to carry the chips out under their arms rather than on their shoulders. There was clearly a further threat to the privilege in 1786, and it caused such outrage among Deptford's Royal Dockyard workers that a riot nearly followed. On 25 October, it was reported that
On Friday afternoon a meeting of a very alarming nature took place at Deptford amongst the Shipwrights; we are given to understand it arose about their perquisites of chips. About four o’clock they were got to such a pitch of desperation, that the whole town was in the utmost consternation imaginable, and it seemed as if the whole place was struck with one general panic. But happy for the security of his Majesty’s subjects, an officer dispatched a messenger for a party of the guards, which fortunately arrived at Deptford at six o’clock, which secured the peace for the moment, but were soon found insufficient, and a second express was instantly disptatched for an additional supply, these were found not capable of keeping the peace; at eleven o’clock all the troops from the Savoy that could be spared arrived, which, happy for the town of Deptford, secured the place and restored peace.
However, whatever the unrest it might provoke, the perk had to be brought under control. This was finally achieved at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when in July 1801 the perquisite was replaced by 'chip money' of 6d a day for shipwrights and half that for labourers.

Further reading: there is a chapter on 'Ships and Chips' in Peter Linebaugh's The London Hanged: crime and civil society in the eighteenth century.

Friday 22 July 2011

Monk Bar defences

There's nothing like a friendly welcome - and York's Monk Bar offered nothing like a friendly welcome. Would-be intruders not only faced a stone gate complete with portcullis; they were also menaced by these seventeenth-century statues, poised to hurl missiles. As its defensive role diminished, this city gate was used as a prison.

Today, the building holds something more intriguing than menacing. The Richard III Museum asks, did this infamous king really kill the Princes in the Tower? The perennially popular historical debate is nicely rehearsed here with Richard stood in the dock, prosecution and defence arguments presented orally and in varied visual displays, and a chance to give your own verdict at the end. The history of the location isn't forgotten either, with various former cells accessible to visitors.

Thursday 21 July 2011


One of the more controversial issues in building conservation is facadism: the situation where a historic facade is preserved, but an entirely new structure is constructed behind. Is this meaningful preservation, or the reduction of history to a thin shell of decoration? The relationship between public front and private interior is gone; the three-dimensional is flattened. Where the new building is larger and taller - as is often the case - then scale and context are also lost. At the same time, beloved streetscapes are being saved even if they are somewhat illusory.

There can be few more blatant, or incongruous, examples than this: the facade of its 1928 predecessor stands like a tiny film set in front of the post-modern bulk of the Lloyds Building.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Two right feet

The memorial to Archbishop Lamplugh in York Minster was carved by none other than Grinling Gibbons - an unexpected Deptford connection in Yorkshire. However, Gibbons may have had his mind on other matters because there's one very odd feature: the statue depicts Lamplugh with two right feet.

Ghost signs (59): Bile Beans

No visit to York (for me, at least) could be complete without seeing this ghost sign, just outside the Monkbar gate. It was restored some time ago, a sign of its local popularity.

Bile beans were sold in many guises over the years. In 1899, they promised to cure the flu, cirrhosis of the liver and blackheads; in the 1950s they were advertised as laxatives; but this advert is much more discreet. It promises to keep users 'healthy, bright-eyed & slim': surely more tempting, as well! However, we're doomed to stay dull-eyed and plump as Bile Beans haven't been on sale since the mid-1980s.

Sunday 17 July 2011

From the archives: London's first buses, the Lewisham connection

London's first bus route may have been north of the river, but south-east London has been crucial to the story too.

London's early buses have been mentioned here in passing, but did you know that two of the most significant figures in the city's bus history had Lewisham connections? They were George Shillibeer, who introduced the omnibus, and Thomas Tilling, who introduced bus timetables.

Shillibeer was a real innovator, if not a great businessman. He had seen omnibuses on the streets of Paris and felt that there was scope for a similar service in London. Unlike the existing stagecoaches, omnibuses were cheaper and did not have to be booked in advance. Launched on 4 July 1829, they were a success and spread throughout London - but so did competitors' services, followed by the railways. Shillibeer went out of business (and instead built combined hearses and mourning coaches - without much success), but is still remembered for his pivotal role in the city's public transport.

However, the original omnibus route was in central London, running from Paddington along Marylebone Road and down City Road into Bank. What, then, was the Lewisham connection? According to John Coulter's Lewisham & Deptford, it was a crucial one. Shillibeer built his omnibuses in a yard at 4 New Cross Road; the site is now Chesterfield Way.

Thomas Tilling bought his first bus in 1850; it came with the right to run 4 journeys a day from Peckham to Oxford Street. His particular innovation was to introduce a fixed timetable with set stops, making the service more predictable and reliable. Not only was his bus business a success; he also supplied horses to organisations including the Metropolitan Fire Service. By the time of his death, he was the largest supplier of horses and vehicles in London; his company survived into the mid-twentieth century. Tilling lived in Lewisham, at Perry Hill Farm, Sydenham.

Friday 15 July 2011

Poison, mistaken identity and a sermon

In 1839, there was a mysterious death in Greenwich Park near the 'wilderness'. An unknown young man was found dead, apparently from poison. He was scruffily dressed but not impoverished, and there were no signs of violence. A loaded pistol in his pocket suggested suicide to the investigators, but there was no trace of a phial or paper which might have held the poison.

One part of the mystery was apparently cleared up when a Greenwich pensioner suggested he might know the man. Before joining the Navy, he had been in service; that very afternoon he had spent time with the son of his former employers. Sure enough, when he saw the body he was overcome with grief and positively identified it as his young friend.

However, there was a twist: the very next day, the pensioner met the 'deceased' - still very much alive and well. The identity of the corpse remained shrouded in mystery, but the manner of death was becoming clearer. The post mortem had found prussic acid in the stomach; an empty phial had also now been found near the site of the body, confirming the suicide theory.

Within a couple of days, the real identity of the deceased was established. He was one John Johnson, a 23-year-old compositor described as 'very eccentric' because he didn't associate with his colleagues, but 'remarkably steady'.

Matters might have been left to rest there, but a local preacher saw an opportunity. He quickly produced the following flyer:

Respectfully announces his intention of preaching a
With a reference to the recent SUICIDE IN GREENWICH PARK;
In which he will communicate some awfully interesting particulars of the deceased.
Service to commence at half-past Six o’clock.
With the Reverend's promises of 'awfully interesting particulars', it is hard to fault his talent for publicity - although we might question his taste.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Ghost signs (57): Persepolis

These signs don't involve a visit to Iran but to Peckham! They are on the walls of the shop of that name, a renowned Persian deli. The clearest is a fairly modern one on the side wall, but only the word 'Sunday' remains. Its context is lost.

On the front wall are traces of painting, but they have faded and are very difficult to decipher. Above the upper windows, the word 'CONFECTIONER' is still just visible, but the wording below those windows is much more indistinct. Lots of playing with contrast and saturation brought out the words 'toffees' and 'novelties'. Smaller writing on the right-hand side appears to include the word 'stock'. Much is now illegible, then, but there is enough to give a flavour of the delicacies once sold there. Best of all, you can still satisfy your sugar cravings inside, with a wide range of Persian sweets and pastries.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Prison walls

Even relatively familiar areas of London retain the power to surprise, and I had one of those moments recently on a walking tour with old maps. Just off Borough High Street survives a remnant of Marshalsea: the south wall of the prison yard.

Marshalsea was best known as a debtors' prison, although it also housed navy men awaiting court martial. Its most famous prisoner was Charles Dickens' father, who was held as a debtor. Young Charles famously went to work in a blacking factory to support himself as a result.

Debtors' prisons were strange places, very different to a modern prison. The prisoners, although already in debt, were expected to pay for their accommodation and various privileges such as access to cooking facilities. Many of the inmates' families had no means of support while the debtor was inside, so joined them within prison walls, meaning that Marshalsea was (a rather grim) home to men, women and children. Dickens himself would join his family, all of whom were living inside the prison, for breakfast and dinner. A debtor would remain imprisoned until the creditor was satisfied - or, of course, until they paid off the debt. However, with no means of earning money and the debt increasing while they were unable to repay it, few people could simply settle their debts.

The prison moved to this site in 1811, having previously been located a little further north. It closed in 1842, and most of its buildings were later demolished. This wall alone remains, but no longer closes off prisoners from the outside world. Instead, you can walk where prisoners once did along what is now Angel Place; step through the gate and you enter the pleasant and peaceful St George's Gardens.

Saturday 9 July 2011

From the archives: Tower Bridge quick guide

I've chosen this post for today because it coincides with a very exciting new piece of Tower Bridge history at Discovering London: previously unseen photographs of its construction. Since writing the post three years ago, I've also visited behind the scenes.

It's one of London's most famous landmarks and one of my favourite places. I still get excited every time I cross it in the 78 bus! (Thankfully we've never had to jump the gap). Here are five things everyone should know about Tower Bridge:

  1. It might look mediaeval, but the bridge was built in 1894.
  2. The bridge is steel; it's covered in stone cladding to blend in with the Tower of London.
  3. It is a bascule bridge (ie it lifts open to allow ships through). Click here to find out when it's due to be lifted.
  4. Even when it used steam engines, the bridge took only about a minute to open.
  5. You can walk across, either at road level or (if you go to the Tower Bridge Exhibition) via the high-level walkways.
And five less well-known facts:

  1. The high-level walkways were closed in 1910 because they were little-used by the general public but more popular with suicides and prostitutes.
  2. Contrary to popular myth, Robert McCulloch didn't think he was getting Tower Bridge when he bought the old London Bridge and shipped it to Arizona.
  3. Freemen of the City of London no longer have the right to herd sheep across the bridge, since there are no livestock markets left in the City. (Nonetheless, Freeman Jef Smith herded his sheep across in 1999).
  4. About 40,000 people cross the bridge every day.
  5. River traffic takes priority over road traffic, but boats have to book an opening 24 hours in advance.

Friday 8 July 2011

Royal Exchange

So often, the most interesting sights in London are seen by looking up. However, one of my favourite features of the Royal Exchange is right at eye level: the shop numbers. They may share identical placing and cream backgrounds, but all are distinctive. Among the grandeur of the City's financial institutions, these humbler details have a charm all their own.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Giant rodent of New Goulston Street

Here's another of ROA's works, a huge mouse or rat (does anyone know which?) emerging from the side of a building.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Old sins and buried skulls

A grisly Victorian murder reappeared in today's newspapers, after the head of the victim was finally officially identified over 130 years after her death.

Julia Martha Thomas, a widow living in Richmond, made a bad choice when she employed Kate Webster as her maid. Webster had previous convictions and a fondness for drink; unsurprisingly, her behaviour did not endear her to her devout employer, who gave her notice. Matters came to a head on 22 March 1879, when the two women got into an argument and Webster pushed her employer down the stairs.

Thomas did not actually die in the fall, but a panicking Webster strangled her so that she could not get Webster in trouble. However, that created a new problem: what to do with the body. She chopped off the head with a razor, then dismembered the body with a meat saw and carving knife. The body parts were boiled in a laundry copper and most of them put in a cardboard box. Helped by an unknowing neighbour, Webster took the box to the Thames and dropped it in; the 'mass of white flesh' was later discovered at Barnes Bridge. A foot was dropped in an allotment.

Most gruesomely of all, Webster gave some of the remains to local boys. In the words of ADI David Bolton at today's inquest, 'A few days after the murder some boys said that Kate Webster had offered them some food and said ‘ere you lads I’ve got some good pigs lard which you can have for free’. The boys ate two bowls of lard which was unfortunately Mrs Thomas.’

However, the head was not found. It was probably carried away in a Gladstone bag; only when David Attenborough (yes, that David Attenborough) decided to build an extension and the builders excavated the site of an old pub in his garden was the skull discovered. Today the case finally reached a conclusion when the inquest identified the skull as that of Thomas.

As for Webster, she was convicted of the murder and hanged at Wandsworth Prison.

Monday 4 July 2011

Elegance in reinforced concrete

Civil engineer Louis Auguste Harel de La Noë trained in Paris and worked in various parts of France, but returned to his native Cotes du Nord (now the Cotes d'Armor) in 1901. Much of his work was on the department's new railway networks. I talked some time ago about his elegant railway viaduct at Les Ponts Neufs; here is another example of his work in the coastal town of Erquy.

Built in 1913, the Viaduc de Caroual made extensive use of reinforced concrete - some 70 tons of it. As with the bridge at Les Ponts Neufs, it was innovative in doing so, especially given the particular challenges posed by this site: the ground was not stable, so the central arch had to be 45m wide.

For tourists, the railway network was a way of accessing the beautiful Breton coast. For those who lived in the region, it was an essential way of moving around an area whose infrastructure was otherwise poor. However, the line faced growing financial losses and closed in 1948. The viaduct is now used by pedestrians.

The joy of Harel de la Noë's work is that it is attractive and distinctive, going beyond the purely functional. No surprise, then, that there is an association devoted to promoting and preserving his work, and another dedicated to this viaduct.

Sunday 3 July 2011

From the archives: the deceptive appearance of Lille Cathedral

Lille Cathedral took much longer than expected to build. The delays brought an unexpected bonus: an extraordinary facade.

Lille Cathedral was an ambitious project, begun in the nineteenth century. It was intended to house a statue of the city's patron, Notre Dame de La Treille (Our Lady of the Arbour), in the most beautiful, sumptuous Gothic cathedral of the time. A site in the heart of the old city was chosen: the former castle mound.

However, like many major building projects, the cathedral took a lot longer to build than expected. The first stone was laid in 1854; the last in 1999. Plans were scaled down as work progressed, and in 1947 a temporary brick facade was put in place; there would be a half-century wait for the permanent replacement. Indeed, looking at the front today one might think that the scaffolding has not yet been taken down.

Unattractive as it might appear in sunlight, the wall is rather dramatic when lit from behind. Thus, inside the cathedral during daylight (or outside after dark), the facade is transformed into a translucent marble wall, glowing with rich colour.

It is the work of engineer Peter Rice and local architect Pierre-Louis Carlier. Inset is a rose window by Ladislas Kinjo, a Polish-French artist, on the theme of the Resurrection.

Further viewing: there is a slideshow of the cathedral here (with French commentary).

Friday 1 July 2011

Ghost signs (56): gasoil

This sign in Lamballe, Brittany has clearly been overpainted at least once. Clearly the owner had had enough of it! However, suggestive bits of text remain, not least all but the first letter of gasoil (diesel). The large 2 in the top left corner, and the bits of text legible underneath, suggest that directions were being given to a garage on the second left or right towards St Brieuc.