Saturday 31 December 2011

Top five of 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 29 December 2011

Final rest

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

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Smithfield Market trains

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

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

Friday 23 December 2011

Navigating Christmas

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

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

Image by Shaun Derry. 

Wednesday 21 December 2011

St Katharine by the Tower

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

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

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

Monday 19 December 2011

London to Hove

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

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

Saturday 17 December 2011

Deptford Copperas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Romilly in Russell Square

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 12 December 2011

Wintry Wisley

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

Sunday 11 December 2011


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

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

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

Thursday 8 December 2011

London Christmas lights

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

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Ratcliffe Highway Murders

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

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

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

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

Monday 5 December 2011

Frederic David Mocatta, Victorian philanthropist

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

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

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

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

Saturday 3 December 2011

Tull of Fenchurch Street

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

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

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

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

Thursday 1 December 2011

Seasonal London gifts

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

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

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

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

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

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