Thursday 31 May 2012

Healthy signs

The medicine bottle above Station Pharmacy in New Cross Road is not only a local landmark but also the traditional symbol for a chemists' shop. Why did it take on such significance?

The jar is properly known as a carboy, from the Persian word qaraba (large jug or flagon). It was actually fairly small when it first took its place in pharmacists' windows in the seventeenth century. The liquid-filled vessel was useful in distinguishing the pharmacist from the apothecary who displayed a pestle and mortar. 

As shop windows got bigger, so did the carboys, so the Victorian version was pretty large. Originally the carboys contained medicinal liquids but by the twentieth century their function became symbolic and they were filled with brightly-coloured liquids. 

Even the use of lighting in this modern version is not anachronistic. Carboys began to be lit up in the nineteenth century, when chemists would use gas burners to light them from behind. 

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Flying from a mountain top

Tibidabo mountain overlooks Barcelona, its church and communications tower forming city landmarks. It is nicknamed the 'mountain of fun', and one of the many fun things on it is a vintage aeroplane. 

The plane is powered by its propellor and takes ten passengers, though many more onlookers enjoy the sight of the cheery red aeroplane overhead. Flying from the mountaintop, it offers amazing views from its windows. Since this is not a real plane but a vintage fairground ride, the flight path is predictable - a circle defined by the metal arm to which it is fixed. 

Inside, the panelling and individual armchairs may call to mind the golden age of passenger aircraft. This plane predates even that lost era: it has been entertaining visitors since 1928. At the time, the first flight between Barcelona and Madrid was big news and this ride is a replica of the news-maker.However quaint and jolly the ride might look today, when the plane's circuit takes it beyond the edge of the mountain you need a head for heights!  

It joined other rides which had been here since 1901, giving Tibidabo its appealing nickname. They were the inspiration of Salvador Andreu, who first had to get visitors up the mountain. The journey was made in two stages: first the Blue Tram, then a funicular railway. Both are still functioning today, making the trip up the mountain as much of a treat as the rides at the top. 

Saturday 26 May 2012

Seaside Sunday: seabirds from the archives

A couple of years ago, I enjoyed a boat trip to the Sept Iles off the Breton coast. A reserve for seabirds, they are home to many species including my favourite puffins. 

The Sept Iles archipelago off Perros Guirec in Brittany is now a nature reserve. In fact, the story of the French equivalent of the RSPB, the LPO, begins here. When seaside tourism became popular in the late nineteenth century, one railway company thought of a great idea to attract passengers: a Breton safari. Obviously, the area is pretty short of big game - but it wasn't short of puffins. Not, that is, until these visitors were encouraged to shoot as many as they could, leaving them to rot where they fell. People appalled at this avian massacre protested, formed the LPO in 1912, and managed to transform the islands from a hunting ground to a seabird reserve.

The population of puffins had fallen from thousands to just 400 couples. Although they are now spared from hunters, the population remains vulnerable to pollution: not only the more dramatic oil spills but also the regular emptying of oil and other pollutants from cargo ships directly into the sea. As a result, there are only about 200 couples today. They are easily identified by their distinctive beaks; another unusual feature is that they literally 'fly' with their wings when fishing underwater, rather than paddling with their feet like other birds. They are also smaller than you might expect, and not keen to come too close to the boat - hence the poor quality of my photographs!

Far more noticeable (and easier to photograph) were the gannets. There is a colony of nearly 20,000 of these seabirds on the ile Rouzic: one end of the island is literally white, even when seen from a distance - not with guano but the birds themselves. They flew over and around the boat as we sat there, beaks full of food which they carry back for their single chick. Much of it is caught by diving: the birds plummet at great speed into the water, sometimes from heights of 30 metres to depths of six or seven metres, and emerge with a beak full of fish or seaweed.

There are of course many other species of birds on the islands: we saw oystercatchers, cormorants, razorbills and all sorts of gulls. Even a grey seal popped its head up to say hello! It's wonderful that the LPO has been able to create this reserve; it would be even better if their campaign against marine pollution were to succeed.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Thomas Wakley and the Royal College of Surgeons

After throwing him bodily out of the building in 1831, the Royal College of Surgeons finally welcomed Thomas Wakley back last week. A lively lecture, part of their Museums at Night event, told the story of The Lancet's founder on the 150th anniversary of his death. The lecturer, David Sharp, is himself a former editor of the journal. 

Wakley was born in Devon in 1795, and trained as an apothecary-surgeon. Apprenticeships in Taunton, Beaminster and Henley were followed by two years walking the wards at Guy's and St Thomas's. In 1817, he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons - but his relationship with that body would not be a happy one. 

Initially, all went very well for Wakley. His wealthy father-in-law bought him a house and practice in a fashionable area. However, his fortunes took a drastic turn for the worse following the execution of the Cato Street conspirators. Although he had nothing to do with the events, a false rumour that he had decapitated the executed bodies led to his house being set on fire. The insurers managed to delay paying for some time, and he had to set up in a new practice just off the Strand, a much less salubrious area. 

At the same time, William Cobbett was encouraging Wakley to form a medical journal. Although The Lancet did share medical information (including accounts of surgeons' lectures, not always popular with the lecturers) it attacked perceived misconduct by medical institutions and individuals, often in intemperate terms. Indeed, the name refers to an instrument used for lancing boils and abcesses and that was the function Wakley saw his journal performing for the medical establishment. 

Wakley's campaigns divided the medical profession, whose leadership he attacked as nepotistic and undemocratic. The events of March 1831 were simply a more physical manifestation of an ongoing battle: Wakley was forcibly ejected from the building on Lincoln's Inn Fields by constables. He proceeded to Bow Street to try to bring a charge for assault, followed by a large crowd; the College counter-attacked by seeking an injunction to keep him away from their premises. 

However, Wakley did not simply criticise through his journal. He also took active steps to implement reforms, as the MP for Finsbury and as coroner for Middlesex. Among his achievements were the introduction of a medical register, action against food adulteration, and reforms to army discipline following his inquest on a soldier who died after a particularly severe flogging. The Lancet, of course, continues to be a leading journal for the medical profession today. 

Further reading: David Sharp's illustrated Lancet article on Thomas Wakley is available here

Image: Thomas Wakley, from Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Ghost signs (73): railway catering

This sign was photographed from a train leaving Waterloo Station. Looking for more information about it, I was interested to contrast the view from the rails with that obtained by Faded London at ground level on Lower Marsh. 

The sign is almost wholly visible from the train carriage, despite the intrusion of newer buildings. From the street, it is somewhat more obscured - but does have the advantage of sharper focus without motion blur! Nonetheless, I have been able to decipher most of the wording:

The Pioneer Catering Co Ltd
Luncheons & Dinners
? Prices

Opened in 1895, the Dover Castle was recorded by architectural photographers Bedford Lemere in 1896. Their images show rather elegant premises with a richly decorated Grill Room and panelled Billiard Room. Mirrors and lights gleam against dark walls throughout. 

Our ghost sign dates from at least several decades later. The mention of a catering company might suggest that this pub also offered outside catering, but in fact Pioneer were a pub-owning company who purchased the late-Victorian premises and modernised them in the 1920s. They still owned the Dover Castle in the 1940s, but some time after the 1950s it closed, and the building has fallen on rather hard times since then, after a spell as a language school. As for the company, they were wound up in 1968; there is surprisingly little information about them online, given that in the 1940s they owned many London pubs including the Half Moon in Holloway Road, the Britannia in Cable Street, the Bunch of Grapes on the Strand, the Duke of Gloucester on Oxford Street, and the nearby Anchor & Hope in The Cut. 

Sunday 20 May 2012

Seaside Sunday: Tower Beach

In the mid-twentieth century, a seaside holiday right in central London was a popular choice. The Thames foreshore had long been a popular place for children to play, but it lacked the amenities of the seaside and was not particularly safe. The vicar of All Hallows by the Tower, Rev Clayton, was particularly concerned to see children playing on the pebbles by Tower Pier where the tide rose very quickly. 

He inspired a project to change that, opening the safer section of foreshore which became known as Tower Beach. The Tower Hill Improvement Trust brought 1,500 bargeloads of sand to the foreshore in front of Tower Bridge. A genuine sandy beach was now in place, and Lord Wakefield of Hythe paid for a patrol boat and watchman to ensure safety. On 23 July 1934, Tower Beach opened. It was quite an occasion, as this British Pathe news film shows:

The beach, accessed by ships' ladders, was a huge success. As well as the joy of the sandy expanse itself, there were entertainments and deckchairs. Many thousands of people used it, right up until 1971 when it was closed because the then-polluted Thames was considered unsafe to bathe in. Much of the sand has now washed away, and the beach is no longer open for public entertainment except during National Archaeology Weekend

There were disadvantages to the beach. The river isn't ideal for swimming in, so most visitors paddled in the edge of the river. More seriously, the beach was only accessible at low tide so visitors had just four or five hours a day to enjoy it. There was a rush for the steps when the tide came in! Nonetheless, the pleasure of making sandcastles in the heart of London was enormous and there are plenty of fond recollections recounted on the Memories of Tower Beach archive. 

The foreshore at Greenwich is still readily accessible, and although it has pebbles rather than sand, was also popular for days out. Today, most of the (relatively few) users are walking rather than sunbathing. However, the idea of city beaches has not been forgotten: the success of Paris Plage suggests that they could still work in London, too. There were suggestions of a beach near the O2 this summer, although it doesn't seem to have happened yet. Meanwhile, there is some sand on the foreshore below the South Bank Centre, where you may see some elaborate creations:

Friday 18 May 2012

Lead lettering

How are letters put on gravestones? The answer may seem obvious: they are carved. However, the Victorians took the process a stage further with lead lettering. It provided elegant, raised-relief text in a contrasting colour, but it was an expensive option. 

First, the lettering did have to be carved into the stone, although the finish would be rougher than where carving alone was used. Tiny holes would then be drilled into each letter, to anchor the lead. Individually-cut lead strips were shaped and securely hammered into the stone with a wooden mallet. For raised lettering, the lead was then carefully cut to shape with a chisel and paring knife. 

The time-consuming, expensive process lost popularity over the course of the last century. Original work has had to contend not only with weathering but also with metal thieves. Examples do survive, though: this one in Nunhead Cemetery shows both the quality of the end result and, in the damaged N, the carefully-drilled holes which once anchored the missing lead. 

Thursday 17 May 2012

Museums at Night is coming!

Don't forget that this weekend is the annual Museums at Night event! Heritage venues all over Britain are holding special evening events. If you're in London, then Londonist has a handy guide here; the national guide is here.

The quality of events is generally excellent. Two years ago, I went to the Government Art Collection:

Saturday evening, as part of the Museums at Night weekend, I walked up a nondescript alley off Tottenham Court Road into a dull-looking building, to find that it hides an impressively wide-ranging selection of artworks. This is the home of the Government Art Collection, currently a particularly topical place to visit.

The GAC is more of a library than a gallery: it doesn't have public display space of its own, but does lend works to embassies, government offices and buildings as well as making frequent loans to art exhibitions. About 70% of the collection is on display at any one time; the remaining 30% returns to this building for storage, research, conservation and shipment to its next location. New works are also regularly purchased, with an Advisory Committee giving expert guidance on how to spend the acquisitions budget of just over £200,000 (a rather modest amount in today's art market). Works are by artists with a connection to Britain, and often also chosen for their relevance to the place in which they will be displayed.

Over a century old, the GAC originally had two rather pragmatic reasons for its existence. First, social changes meant that many government ministers and ambassadors no longer had their own private art collections so they needed some help in decorating their official premises. Second, a nice large painting was a good way to hide cracks in the wall or damaged decoration! The GAC now has over 13,500 items in its collection, and the emphasis has shifted from hiding the cracks to promoting British culture.

The GAC faces particular challenges not shared by other British collections. In hot countries, condensation, mould and insects can all attack the back of paintings so creative ways of protecting them have had to be found. Sites have to be carefully considered: watercolours can only be displayed in low-light conditions, while some images are particularly appropriate because, for example, they show the city in which an embassy is located.

One of the perks of being a minister is that you get to visit the GAC to choose art for your offices. This means that every government reshuffle is pretty busy, as some ministers choose to take their artwork with them to new locations while other pieces are returned to or newly chosen from the collection. A complete change of government is of course even busier, and the new ministers are visiting the collection right now to make their choices. Unsurprisingly, different governments tend to have different taste in art: New Labour was associated with contemporary British art, for example. The current administration has its own tastes, but although markers on certain paintings show that they are about to be moved out to new locations, we didn't get to find out who was taking what!

The tour ended with a chance to look at some of the works, not only paintings and sculpture but also video. There was also a case of Privy Council silver dating back to the reign of Queen Anne or earlier: Privy Councillors used to be given desk equipment including pen trays, ink bottles and candlesticks, all in solid silver. That mixture of genres, periods and official functions was a good summary of the collection as a whole.

If you'd like to visit the GAC, it usually offers tours during Open House; groups can also arrange visits. More details are here
I also visited the Museums at Night event at the Cuming Museum, as did Transpontine

Tuesday 15 May 2012

News of the World

With events at the News of the World once more in the headlines, here's a reminder of the days when it still published them. The sign in Croydon was hiding demurely behind some boarding, with perhaps understandable shyness.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Seaside Sunday: fish and chips

Yorkshire's fish and chips are famously good, so while on holiday there, I sampled them regularly! Not only is the meal associated with seaside holidays, there are also obvious advantages in eating fish landed a few steps from the chip shop. However, traditional as they now are, fish and chips were not an English invention. 

Fried fish arrived here separately from chips, although both seem to have reached us in the seventeenth century. The chips probably originated in France or Belgium, while fried fish was introduced from the Iberian peninsula by Sephardic Jewish refugees. 

The two came together in the 1860s, although who was responsible is a matter of fierce controversy. Northerners favour the claim of John Lees who sold fish and chips at Mossley market, Lancashire. London has its own claim, though, for a shop opened by Joseph Malin in East London. 

Even today there are regional variations: for example, Yorkshire's chippies fry in dripping while in London they generally use vegetable oil. However, there is no dispute that they are firmly established as one of our national dishes. 

Friday 11 May 2012

Ghost signs (72): RIP

There is an ongoing debate about the preservation of ghost signs, which has cropped up here from time to time. It has particular poignancy at the moment, because the Hammersmith Palais has just been demolished - and with it, a large and rather lovely sign. Sam of Ghost Signs pays tribute here.

The debate centres around two issues. First, should ghost signs have some kind of protection such as listing? As far as I know, only one sign has been given this kind of status: the Hovis advert in Camden Passage, Islington. Another sort of protection is that offered by relocation to a museum: the Black Country Living Museum has several signs. Unprotected, signs can be demolished or suffer lesser indignities such as being painted over or having windows inserted.

Secondly, should ghost signs be restored? In other words, is their appeal partly thanks to their fading appearance, the equivalent of patina in antique furniture? Or should they be brightened up so that we can experience the original effect, in all its colourful glory, as with York's Bile Beans sign?

Is there even an argument for more extreme measures? One Cadum soap sign in Paris was missed so much that a replica was eventually painted to replace it.

Losing a sign is always a shame, especially when it's as good as the Hammersmith Palais one. However, they do survive in one important location: the Ghost Signs Archive at the History of Advertising Trust. We also need to ask whether part of their appeal is their ephemerality. Fading, unevenness, incongruous additions, a little mystery when words are obscured: are these all part of their charm?

I'm not even sure what my own view is. I do prefer originals to restorations, but I waver over protection orders. I'd love to hear your opinions. 

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Ghost signs (71): Sprowston Road

This sign in Sprowston Road, Forest Hill has survived only in part. Happily, Sebastien of Painted Signs & Mosaics has done an excellent job of decoding it as advertising P & P Campbell, Perth Dye Works. Further searches for other examples of the company's adverts suggests that they favoured plain text, so there are no missing logos or illustrations here.

The company had a network of agents throughout Britain in the nineteenth century, offering both dyeing and dry-cleaning. Unfortunately it was hit by domestic problems and competition from German dyes in the early twentieth century, and the final straw was a major fire in 1919. P&P Campbell were bought by Pullar's soon afterwards - which suggest that this is a very old sign indeed. We should be grateful that so much of it has survived, as well as disappointed that the central section has not.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Seaside Sunday: standing out from the herd

Perhaps even more extraordinary than the self-saucing sausage, this cow is among the strangest of seaside food models. It certainly caught my attention in Lyme Regis this afternoon!

I'm not sure why an unusually elongated, not to say emaciated, cow seemed the best way of advertising the merits of ice cream. It's perhaps no more sinister than its more literal cone-based siblings, but it udderly failed to put me in a holiday moo-d!

Thursday 3 May 2012

River and road

Just a quick post to highlight two very different London websites.

First, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations will include one event I'm looking forward to: a river pageant along the Thames from Battersea Bridge. Apparently, it will include 'boats spouting geysers'! Sadly it ends at Tower Bridge rather than continuing to Greenwich.

On a very different theme, the new Deptford High Street website looks extremely promising. It already has a selection of articles ranging from local cherry blossom to the new station - and, returning to 2012 celebrations, the Olympic torch route.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Cast-iron conservatory

The Horniman Museum, best-known for its walrus and aquarium, also has a rather wonderful Victorian conservatory. It was built in 1894 for the Museum's founder Frederick John Horniman, and originally located in his Croydon garden. He built it for two reasons: to house his own collection of rare plants, and to provide his elderly mother with a comfortable garden environment. After his death it gradually fell into disrepair, but moved to the museum grounds and underwent conservation in the 1980s. 

The conservatory is cast iron, the work of leading company Walter Macfarlane & Co. They sent the cast sections by train to Croydon, where local contractors Joseph Kemp & Son assembled them. The resulting building is light and romantic, full of pleasing details. It's no wonder that the conservatory has become a popular venue for weddings and events.