Thursday 29 March 2012

Ghost signs (67): wool & woollies, wools

This ghost sign makes up in repetition for what it lacks in detail! Now largely obscured by a hoarding, it still tries to tempt knitters passing along Croydon Road, Penge. Sadly, information such as the identity and address of the shop are no longer visible. 

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Claims Very Direct

Is the notion of personal injury compensation a new one? What about the criminal fringes - are false claims, exaggerated claims, indeed pretty much any claims recent inventions?

In short, the answer is 'no'. Forget notions of our forebears stiffening their upper lips and soldiering on uncomplainingly as injuries ruined health and livelihood: the Victorians were quite familiar with compensation claims. Indeed, some of them made a less-than-honest career as claimants. 

In 1895, James Price collected multiple payments for personal injuries. He was at an advantage compared to the modern dishonest claimant, since many of his victims seem to have been willing to hand over cash without recourse to insurance or the need for legal action. That made deception somewhat easier: there was no risk of a single insurer noticing duplicate claims, or of a court report alerting another defendant. When he did actually take a case to court, it proved his undoing. 

On 1 February 1895, Price called upon the American Wringer Company in Southwark Street to complain that he had fallen heavily over their coal-cover, broken his arm, and been incapacitated from working. He requested £2, but the manager settled the matter by paying him 30 shillings. Although Price's arm was in a sling, he showed no signs of more recent injury.

That same day, there was a gas explosion on Southwark Bridge. The next day, Price went over to have a look at the scene and decided to pretend that he had been injured in the blast. A few days later, he went to the offices of the Metropolitan Gas Company who were responsible for the  bridge explosion. Unlike the American Wringer Company, however, they initially gave him short shrift: their own dispute with the Electric Light Company meant they couldn't entertain his claim. That must have been especially galling for Price as he had brought a 'witness' with him. 

Nonetheless, he let matters lie for a little while and made similar claims elsewhere. At the beginning of April, the French Asphalte Company paid him £2 compensation for injuries sustained tripping in a hole; they had allegedly prevented him working for a month. 

Price then made his great error: in May, he brought legal proceedings against the gas company in Lambeth County Court. His original confederate had got cold feet and wouldn't attend, but Price had a statement from another 'witness' who had signed it while drunk and without reading it. (In fact, this witness had been collecting his own compensation payment from the Commissioners of Sewers at the time of the explosion!) Price won the case and was awarded £12. He also found himself in the Old Bailey the following year, charged with perjury. 

With his former 'witnesses' and victims all giving evidence against him, and others confirming that he was not seen on the bridge at the time of the explosion, Price was convicted. The police officer in the case then added further damaging information: Price allegedly belonged to a gang who made a living from bogus injuries. They had obtained over £1,000 in the City alone in the previous four years. He was imprisoned for three years. 

Sunday 25 March 2012

Tower Bridge mortuary

Today, about 50 bodies a year are recovered from the Thames. In the Victorian period, the number was much higher: more river activity and fewer people able to swim meant more drownings, the river was a popular spot for suicides, and there are suggestions that people too impoverished to bury their relatives might throw the corpse into the river instead. 

Tidal movement meant that bodies tended to wash up at certain spots on the river, and one of these was Dead Man's Hole alongside Tower Bridge. It was logical, then, for the bridge to contain an unusual facility: a mortuary, in the north pier. With the tide lapping at the steps, and the bulk of the bridge looming overhead, it must have been a fairly sinister location for those identifying the dead. 

Although it is no longer in use, the entrance to the mortuary is still visible. It is now used as a storage space; bodies are taken to Wapping Police Station a little way down the river. 

Thursday 22 March 2012

Locked up

After it has closed for the day, the Tower of London looks extremely forbidding - and with good reason. It was built as a fortress to protect the monarch from hostile Londoners. Today, it doesn't have the same defensive role but the tradition of locking the gates each night continues as it has for the last 700 years. 

The ceremony of the keys begins when the Chief Yeoman Warder joins his escort of four guards - three armed, the fourth carrying his lantern. They are challenged by a sentry in the almost-unchanging words (only the name of the monarch varies):
Halt! Who comes there? (The sentry's rifle is raised menacingly.)
The keys.
Whose keys?
Queen Elizabeth's keys.
(The rifle is lowered.) Pass, Queen Elizabeth's keys. All's well. 
Guards, warder and audience proceed to the steps alongside the White Tower, where the Chief Warder cries 'God preserve Queen Elizabeth'. The guards respond 'Amen' and the Last Post is sounded. The tower is now secure for the night (or at least until a gate is opened to allow the audience back out). 

While the admission of visitors to the ceremony is a relatively recent innovation, the Tower has been welcoming daytime tourists for centuries. As the modern visitor gasps at the admission fees and queues, they might reflect that their experience is much improved from that of 'A Country Visitor', who wrote to the Times in 1851 to complain:
Few strangers leave town without paying a visit to the Tower, and every one must be struck with the incivility and want of accommodation therein. Upon entering the gates this afternoon I found some hundreds of persons, male and female, huddled together, striving to obtain tickets from a window under a portico where no two persons can pass abreast, and the scene there reminded me of what might be expected at the gallery entrance of a theatre on boxing night. After waiting just one hour we obtained our tickets and were ordered into what is called the ante or refreshment room. This room is about 12ft. by 18ft., with a counter containing ginger pop, buns, &c., immediately behind which are two waterclosets (I understand recently erected). I will not attempt to describe the stench one had to contend with, the place being completely crammed with persons waiting their turns or numbers to be called, but merely add that this room seems to be the resort of pickpockets, two ladies having been eased of their purses, containing some pounds, during the half hour I was present therein. 
This correspondent was equally unimpressed by the Yeoman Warders, who 'appear under no control, and quarrel among themselves, in language not the most refined.' I'm happy to report that their 21st-century counterparts were rather more civilised as they guided us through the ceremony!

To attend the ceremony, you need to apply in writing for tickets several months in advance. 

Tuesday 20 March 2012

King's Cross Western Concourse

On a Monday morning, King's Cross Station is usually populated by rushing commuters. However, yesterday they were supplemented by photographers: the new departure area has just opened, and it is certainly dramatic. 

In the Observer, Rowan Moore describes the building as in the tradition of the 'big metal roof'. However, the form departs from that usually seen in railway stations: a large 'stem' or 'funnel' is the key visible support and focal point of the semicircular structure. 

 The changes are about a great deal more than looks. London Reconnections gives an excellent explanation of how passenger flow through the station is being improved (at least when the photographers have moved on!). 

Meanwhile, IanVisits reminds us of the station's past, notably its humble origins and its little-known role as a station for the dead

Friday 16 March 2012

Transport backstage

Most museums have storerooms, but if your institution showcases buses, trams and tubes then you need more storage than most. The London Transport Museum has a substantial depot at Acton, and on a few weekends a year it opens to the public. Last weekend, I joined the long queue for a ticket before exploring prized items both restored and unrestored; taking a tour of the inspection pit; and finishing with a ride on an RT bus. 

Touring the inspection pit was fascinating; we started on board the bus before heading underneath it. Steps led down into the narrow workspace, giving a view you'd normally have to get run over to see! The affection our guides feel for their giant charges was apparent, and their care is obvious from the surprisingly clean underside of this bus, which still takes to the roads from time to time.

Back in the main area, there were so many vehicles, machines, signs and fittings vying for attention that it would be easy to spend days exploring them all. Here are a few details that caught my eye. 

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Convoy's consultation

The developers of Convoy's Wharf, Hutchison Whampoa, are holding a 'community consultation' on Saturday 24 March. Details in the flyer are vague (Deptford Dame has more here) and there is no information on what the consultation involves. Deptford Dame is understandably sceptical. However, the proposals are currently being revised so it's a crucial time to make your views known. If that isn't enough to persuade you, the event will include a tour of the site - and as a crucial part of Deptford's history, it's well worth visiting. 

Practical info: 11am-4pm, Saturday 24 March, at Convoy's Wharf (entrance where New King Street meets Prince Street). Tours at 11.15 and 2.15; speeches and presentations 12.15-2.15, with refreshments.
For further information/to confirm attendance: 0845 460 6011 or

Monday 12 March 2012

A fountain of

Queuing for the monthly candlelit evening at Sir John Soane's Museum, I had plenty of time to admire a Victorian fountain just across the road. However, it presented an intriguing puzzle: 'the fear of the Lord is a fountain of' what? The final word has worn away.

Back at home, a quick search provided the answer: 'life'. Unsurprisingly, the inscription was a popular one for Victorian water fountains - London Remembers records the same motto at St Dunstan's in the West, Fleet Street.

This example seems to have been provided by an anonymous philanthropist concerned at the poor quality of water available locally. (Local wells were polluted by sewage.) The District Board of Works recorded in 1860 that 'A lady residing in the neighbourhood of London is anxious to be permitted to put up a Drinking Fountain at her own expense in this Parish and prefers to place it in Lincoln's Inn Fields'. The following year, this fine and rather elaborate fountain was put in place. 

Saturday 10 March 2012

Owen & Bowen, depicting Britain

If you needed to make a long journey in eighteenth-century Britain, you might find yourself very grateful to John Owen and Emmanuel Bowen. From 1720, their strip-maps of journeys were published and provided masses of information to the traveller. 

The work was not altogether original; indeed, this atlas was subtitled 'Ogilby Improv'd'. John Ogilby has published his maps in 1675. Originally a dancing teacher, his varied career had seen him appointed as one of the 'Sworn Viewers' who surveyed London after the great fire of 1666. Perhaps it was this experience which pushed him towards producing Britannia.

So how was this later version 'improv'd'? Importantly, the Owen and Bowen version was smaller and thus much more portable, as well as more detailed. Emmanuel Bowen, a talented engraver and mapseller who worked for both George II and Louis XV of France, added town descriptions and coats of arms to each page of maps. 

Dots marked mileage; the names of towns you passed through were all listed; and the limitations of the strip format were overcome by labelling of side-roads with their destinations. The margins were filled with further information about significant towns. Hills were drawn in, giving a sense of the terrain. Perhaps most charming to modern viewers are the tiny images which enliven the maps as well as helping to guide the traveller. 

Sunday 4 March 2012

Improbable pineapple

Above the date '1881', this fine pineapple looks good enough to eat - but where is it?

Friday 2 March 2012

People's Building Society

Above eye level on Lewisham High Street is a reminder of the building society which once had its head office here. The People's Building Society has left equally scant trace online, but was operating in the 1860s and in 1968 made an application to be merged into the Greenwich Building Society.