Thursday 29 November 2012

Art Nouveau (in)convenience

My attempt to visit Paris's Art Nouveau public toilets, alongside the church of La Madeleine, was foiled as they have now been closed. Although they are listed buldings, the city sealed them off with metal gates as a cost-cutting measure.  How lucky that my visit was motivated by curiosity rather than desperation! Even more luckily, there was some compensation: the extravagant murals at the entrances are still visible.

As the tiles boast, the toilets opened in 1905. They were the first such conveniences in France, copying London facilities operating since the previous century. Inside were mahogany doors with stained glass panels, opening into generously-sized cubicles with washbasins; there was even a shoe-cleaning seat in the middle of the room. The automated 'sanisette' cubicles which replace all that luxury seem a very inferior alternative.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Passage painting in progress

I love the passages couverts in Paris - all sharing the same concept of an arcade of shops with a glass roof, but each with its own character. While some have retained or recovered their high-class atmosphere, others are shabbier - and often livelier for it. The most elegant passages can feel as if they have been preserved in (very appealing) aspic, but there's no such sensation in the Passage du Caire, full of fashion wholesalers, or the Passage Brady, known for its Indian restaurants and shops. 

The current colour scheme
The Passage du Prado has been the poor relation even among these more timeworn arcades. Although one of the most venerable passages in the city, it was only roofed with glass in 1925. As a result, it has some good Art Deco features, although they are easily missed among the nail salons and snack bars. However, partly in response to concerns that this arcade had become a dangerous and crime-ridden place, it is currently undergoing renovations: the floor is being replaced and at ceiling level, there is some rather colourful repainting going on. I very much doubt these are historically accurate shades, but they do a wonderful job of drawing they eye to some of the details which make Paris's passages so special. 

The repainting

Sunday 25 November 2012

Malakoff: past the Peripherique

Visitors to Paris tend, unsurprisingly, to focus on the city centre. However, as with London, the outer districts are full of interest too. For example Malakoff, an unassuming neighbourhood just across the Peripherique ring road, has some fascinating history. 

Before the 1850s, this area was mostly taken up by quarries so the land was of little value. However, speculator Alexandre Chauvelot saw an opportunity and purchased 18 hectares. He sold it in small parcels of land to working-class Parisians, many working on Haussmann's elegant transformation of central Paris. Building with the finest stone from local quarries by day, they constructed their own small homes from the cheapest. Chauvelot (and the fellow speculators who soon joined him) didn't waste potential building land on wide roads, so the original streets are joined by narrow passages. Although the early houses have gone, the street layout survives. 

Why call the town Malakoff? Because as well as housing, Chauvelot invested in a Crimean War theme park which opened in 1856, offering a restaurant, dancing and bars. Malakoff was a decisive battle, fought over the tower of the same name in Sebastopol, and the park centrepiece was a replica Malakoff Tower. It was 50 metres high, decorated with portraits of combatants, and housed an exhibition on the war - which had ended only the previous year. (Given that spectators had taken picnics to watch the Battle of Alma, it is perhaps not surprising that Chauvelot seems to have been untroubled by concerns about  good taste.) Initially the park attracted up to 12,000 visitors on Sundays, but when Chauvelot died in 1861 it went into decline. By 1871, the tower was a liability because of its potential use by the Prussians besieging Paris. It was demolished, leaving the street name 'rue de la Tour' and the name of the town as reminders.

The law faculty of Paris Descartes University now occupies the former École Supérieure d'Électricité. The building, opened in 1926, proudly bears the name of its former occupant - a prestigious postgraduate school of engineering. It has a place in technological history: the first French television demonstration was given here in 1931 by René Barthélemy. The 30-line image transmitted from nearby Montrouge showed his collaborator Suzanne Bridoux, who thus became the first French television presenter! The following year, the PTT (French post office, also responsible for telegrams and telephones) began broadcasting and by 1935, Barthélemy's channel was making daily broadcasts using a much improved 180 lines. There were only a hundred French television sets available to receive them; by the time of Barthélemy's death in 1954, there were around half a million. 

Tucked away on a footpath is the (locally) famous Leon the lamp which has its own preservation society. It's the only lamp in Ile de France to have remained continuously gas-powered since its installation in 1925. The arrival of street lighting was part of a larger project to improve amenities in the town - roads were also paved, sanitation installed and municipal buildings constructed. This surge of activity was followed by the construction of a health centre in the 1940s. 

My interest in ghost signs has led to a related interest in French liqueurs, which account for a high proportion of the faded advertisements on France's walls. I haven't yet seen one for Clacquesin, but it was nice to find out about this 'medicinal' drink which used to be distilled in the town. It doesn't contain the near-ubiquitous quinquinoa, but is based on pine resin - as the logo illustrates - combined with 32 plant extracts including cinnamon, cloves, lemon, orange and juniper berries, all sweetened and coloured by caramel. 

The distillery was established in 1860 and moved to its current premises in 1903. Pauline Clacquesin, the wife of its founder Paul, was highly skilled at publicity - using everything from radio and wall adverts to promotional city maps and calendars, to endorsements from Tour de France cyclists. The aperitif was hugely fashionable in the 1920s, a favourite of stars including Josephine Baker. Forbidden during the Occupation, it suffered a further blow with the death of Pauline Clacquesin in 1942, and didn't recover in the post-war years. It is now being made again at a new site by the great-grandson of its founders; the original stills and equipment remain here, and the premises are used as an events venue. After all, this fascinating place is just a short metro ride from the centre of Paris.

Further reading: official website (in French)

Friday 23 November 2012

Brown ale and boarded windows

The Little Crown pub in Rotherhithe has been closed for years, but still sports this rather nice tiled sign. It's not just a reminder of happier drinking times inside, but also a relic of London's brewing history. 

The brewery was on Whitechapel Road - its 1880s building survives, with the name still curving over the gateway. Known as the Albion brewery, it had been founded in 1808 by the landlord of the nearby Blind Beggar pub. John Mann and Philip Blake bought the lease in 1818; after Blake's retirement, the brewery was run by Mann alone until 1846. The name then changed to recognise his new partners, Robert Crossman and Thomas Paulin. 

When Burton ales became fashionable, the company opened a brewery in Burton on Trent - before realising that London water would also work and returning all production to the capital in 1896. They even added a bottling plant - and as one of the largest brewers in the country, they became a public company in 1901. Mann's Brown Ale was created by head brewer Thomas Wells Thorpe in 1902 and became their most popular product by the mid-twentieth century. It was the first beer of this sweeter style; other beer companies would follow, especially when brown ale became popular in the 1920s. 

In 1958, Mann merged with Watney's to form Watney Mann, before being bought by Grand Metropolitan in 1972; the Albion brewery closed in 1979. The Mann's name lives on, however, with Marston's (who, coincidentally, had bought the lease to Mann's Burton brewery over a century ago) still brewing brown ale to its original recipe. 

Our sign, then, evokes a major London brewer, firmly rooted in the East of the city. It dates from before 1958, reminding us of a time when the now-closed pub with its boarded windows was still a living part of the community. 

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Signposts (7): A100

My very occasional series on interesting signs, increasingly misnamed as 'signposts', is back with a London example. This sign is on the south west corner of Tower Bridge, reminding us that the landmark is also part of the A100 road.

The system of letters and numbers designating certain roads was a side-effect of road and petrol taxes. With motorists now providing money for roads to be maintained, the government needed a way of identifying those roads and indicating which were busiest. Originally designed for Ministry of Transport use, the numbering system also promised to be a useful way for drivers to navigate the road system so it was released to the public in the 1920s.

The Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey existed between 1900 and 1965, before being absorbed into Southwark. We therefore know that this sign is over 45 years old. (The liberal use of full stops would also have suggested that!)

There are other surviving reminders of this now-defunct borough, including a film promoting its activities. As wonderful as the social history it contains is the revelation that the council had departments known as 'Health Propaganda' and 'Gardens and Beautification'.

Further reading: for all things UK road-related, including more on road numbering, visit the wide-ranging CBRD site.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Ghost sign news

First, the Bile Beans ghost sign in York has been repainted. It had already been painted in the 1980s, a restoration which was controversial at the time. That controversy has now been reignited: York Stories has an excellent account

Second, Liverpool Ghost Signs was published on Thursday. It's the first book about British ghost signs, so I've ordered my copy! Sam Roberts has interviewed the authors, Caroline and Phil Bunford, on his Ghostsigns blog. (He also wrote the foreword.)

Finally, Sam's own book has just been published. It looks at the Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie in Cambodia, where he has lived for several years. This book is a fascinating insight into the style of the signs and the process of producing them; it also analyses their wider context in the history of the city and the country. Well-illustrated, it's a wonderful exploration of the advertising culture of Cambodia, and gives an international perspective to hand-painted signs. 

Thursday 15 November 2012

Turkish Baths, Russell Square

Set into the pavement in Russell Square is a rather tempting sign. Warm, relaxing Turkish baths; a marbled sign promising luxurious surroudings; and a rather fetching arrow pointing the way. Who could resist?

Don't attempt to follow it, though, as the baths no longer exist. They were part of the Imperial Hotel, designed by Charles Fitzroy Doll, who was also responsible for the nearby (and surviving) Hotel Russell. Part of an extension to the building, the baths opened in 1913. An early photograph shows an opulent interior, the walls and ceilings heavily decorated, the floor of mosaic. It more than lives up to the promise of its sign. 

A later advertising brochure for the hotel claimed its bath as 'Finest in the World', open to non-residents for a rather pricy three shillings and sixpence. Not only were they open 'day and night', but there was a wide range of other treatments including Russian vapour baths, Vichy douches, electric light and ultraviolet ray baths and electric treatments.

Sadly, the hotel and its baths were demolished in 1966. Statues from the baths now line the car park entrance; otherwise, all that remains is this sign, tempting and taunting the passer-by.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Tram pole

On the road outside Temple Meads Station in Bristol is a fine but neglected piece of street furniture. At first glance, I thought it was a stinkpipe as there are no fittings at the top. A second look suggested that this is in fact a lamp post - albeit one now missing its lamp. However, further research led to the information on Flickr that it is in fact a tram pole. Indeed, there's a photo of it in use here

The decoration on the pole is rather good. As well as some very nice leaves and berries around the column, there is a more geometric design at the base. The rust may speak of a lack of care, but it does also highlight some of the detail.

This pole is a tangible reminder of a time when the city was at the forefront of public transport. In 1895, it was one of the very first British cities to introduce electric trams, with the whole network electrified by 1900. (For twenty years before that, there had been horse-drawn trams.) 

In the late 1930s, it was decided that the extensive tram network should be closed in favour of bus services. In fact, it continued to operate until its power supply was destroyed during bombing of the city in 1941. The trams are now largely forgotten: a sad contrast to the large celebrations which had marked their opening. 

Saturday 10 November 2012

Parliamentarians, poets and rebels: Unitarian Chapel, Bridgwater

Likenesses of Admiral Blake, a prominent Parliamentarian during the Civil War, can be found on Deptford Town Hall and on the facade of the old naval hospital in Greenwich. However, reminders of his life are most prolific in his home town, Bridgwater. As well as his statue, the Blake Museum, and various buildings named for him, there is a plaque on the wall of the Unitarian Chapel where his protege preached. Its early fate was closely tied to England's political conflicts.

In 1662, the Rev John Norman was ejected from the parish church: a consequence of the restoration of the monarchy two years earlier. Like Blake, he had been a Parliamentarian, and so the admiral's friends rallied round to create a new congregation. Their chapel was destroyed by the authorities in 1683, shortly before the Monmouth Rebellion, but was rebuilt again and the building still bears the date 1688. A large preaching academy was also associated with the chapel. The current building, however, dates from 1788 as another, rather more florid panel attests; around this time, the mayor and other local corporation members worshipped here. (The shell-shaped hood over the door is from the 1688 building.) The chapel became Unitarian in 1815. A schoolroom was added to the back in the nineteenth century. 

The building has other famous connections: inside, a plaque commemorates George Lewis Browne, who fought under Nelson at Trafalgar and brought his body back to England. Another plaque outside records that poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived for a while in the town and nearby Nether Stowey, preached here twice in 1797 and 1798. 

Tuesday 6 November 2012

'A brilliant success': the London to Brighton Run

When the Locomotives on the Highway Act 1896 was passed, it dramatically changed British motoring: no longer did cars have to be preceded by a man carrying a flag. To celebrate, the first London to Brighton Run took place - an event now repeated annually by pre-1905 vehicles. The day before they depart, a selection are exhibited on Regent Street. I've visited before, and returned this year to admire and photograph the cars.

As for the run itself, images of the original event were published in the Daily Graphic. There's a gently humorous picture of a breakdown - the motorised tricycle was still on the Embankment at the beginning of the run!   Luckily, there were plenty of willing hands to give it a push, as the event was watched by 'tens of thousands' of Londoners, sometimes up to nine or ten deep on the roadside. Less fortunately, the masses of onlookers slowed progress so that a number of engines overheated. Only after Croydon 'when the open country was reached ... the keen, excited throng gave way to straggling onlookers'. 

Another sketch cheekily shows the motor vehicles being overtaken by bicycles and a horse. Since the speed limit was 12 miles per hour, that perhaps doesn't reflect on the cars so much as the law. (The Graphic's correspondent, who rode in one of the cars, suspected that it had reached illegal speeds descending some of the hills, while the most modern machines managed 25 mph.)

It wasn't only speed which these new machines offered. Steering was also much easier than in a horse-drawn vehicle. 'It would have been impossible for the most expert whip to have performed with horses the feats which my host was compelled to perform in the crowded traffic along the Brixton Road. ... The cyclists, in especial, seemed to be devoting themselves to courting the risk of death.'

These early vehicles may have been fast and manoeuvrable, but they were far from reliable. 'Many of the cars advertised to start did not get off at all, even if they reached the starting place.' Many more were lost along the way. However, some of the cars proved a little more reliable and the Graphic shows their soggy arrival at Brighton. It reports that 'of those few that succeeded in getting all the way to Brighton most arrived long after dark, cloaked in mud, and their occupants drenched with rain.'

Nonetheless, the Graphic's special reporter - clearly something of an enthusiast himself, and having thoroughly enjoyed his own drive as far as Reigate - concluded that 'the demonstration was a brilliant success.' He ended the article with an accurate prediction for the future.
The industry, it is quite obvious, is only in its infancy. An intense amount of experimental work has yet to be done before an entirely satisfactory vehicle can be put upon the market, but enough has already been done to make it clear that a reasonably perfect motor will be with us in the near future, although possibly it may not be in the least like any of those that were used on Saturday.

The Daily Graphic report comes from an original copy of the newspaper, kindly sent to me by historic newspapers. They have an amazing collection of regional and national newspapers, with some dating back to the seventeenth century. As well as providing various gift options for birthdays and anniversaries, historic newspapers also have a historical research team. I was very impressed by the condition of the newspapers, as well as the gift box and tissue wrapping in which they were packaged. 

They have very kindly provided a discount code: 15TODAY. It can be redeemed against any of their original newspapers. 

Sunday 4 November 2012

British cars

There's an irony in Regent's Street being closed to traffic for a motor show but, that aside, this annual event is rather good even if you're more into history than motors. It coincides with the London to Brighton Run, and has a display of some of the pre-1905 vehicles taking part (on which, more shortly). There were also some more modern vintage vehicles on show this year in the 'Best of British cars': here's a selection. As usual, click the images to enlarge. 

Thursday 1 November 2012

Marylebone Station, the Great Central Railway and the Channel Tunnel

The grand name of the Great Central Railway might suggest that it achieved lofty things on long-distance routes. However, as is often the case, the boast contained in the name was never really matched in reality. Nonetheless, it has left a permanent mark in London. 

Marylebone Station was formally opened on 9 March 1899 (with services beginning on 15 March) - the last of London's mainline terminal stations. Lines from the north were not allowed to have termini further south than Euston Road, hence the famous alignment of King's Cross (1852), St Pancras (1868) and Euston (1837) along the north edge of that thoroughfare. It continues west as Marylebone Road, with Paddington Station (1838) at its end; but after all these had been built, there was resistance to further stations in central London. 

After much effort, the Great Central Railway were allowed to open their new terminus. The difficulties were wryly acknowledged in a speech by C T Ritchie MP, head of the Board of Trade: He imagined that there was no railway which had had to overcome so much Parliamentary difficulty as the Great Central Railway. 

The Times reported the opening, but paid much more attention to the railway stock than the station itself. That's a little unfair, as it is an appealing station even if smaller in scale than its more famous neighbours. (The original plans had to be scaled back significantly for budgetary reasons.) The new trains do sound rather good, though:
These trains were made up of the new and luxurious stock which the company has had constructed for the purposes of the new line. The carriages, which all have corridors giving free passage along the whole length of the train, run upon four-wheeled bogies, and are fitted with Gould's vestibule and automatic coupler, Gresham's direct system of steam heating, communication between passenger and driver and guard by means of the automatic vacuum brake, and electric communication between passengers and attendants. Every effort has been made to reduce oscillation as far as possible, and the smoothness of running attained is a tribute to the design of the coaches as well as to the excellence of the permanent way provided by the engineers.
All the carriages, whether first-class or third-class, are handsomely decorated and comfortably fitted, practically the only differences between them being the more elaborate adornment of the former and the rather greater elbow room allowed to the passenger who has paid the higher fare. The dining-cars of both classes are lighted by electricity supplied from dynamos driven from the axles, while the other carriages are provided with Coligny lamps burning oil gas. All these carriages ... are painted in the new colours which the Great Central Railway has adopted for the exterior of its stock, the upper panels being French grey and the lower ones brown, varnished and picked out with gold lines and emblazoned with the company's new coat-of-arms. 
The new line ran from Nottinghamshire to London, and was intended to provide a fast connection between the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway's services and London. When their London extension was about to open, the MS&LR change its name to the Great Central Railway to reflect this national coverage. The initials GCR can still be seen in Marylebone's decoration.  

In fact, financial success was initally elusive - not helped by the line costing triple its £3.5 million budget - and the line eventually ended up carrying more freight than passengers. One intriguing aspect of the company's fortunes is that in building the line, they had carefully taken account of future compatibility with European trains. The company chairman Edward Watkin was also on the board of a French railway company, Chemin de Fer du Nord, and was behind a scheme to build the channel tunnel. He therefore envisioned the line being part of a railway network extending far beyond Britain.* However, the tunnel project was later abandoned  as a potential threat to national security and would only be completed in 1994. Most of the Great Central's route was closed by Beeching in the 1960s, and today Marylebone is the terminus for Chiltern Railways which goes only as far north as Birmingham.

The Times report comes from an original copy of the newspaper, kindly sent to me by historic newspapers. They have an amazing collection of regional and national newspapers, with some dating back to the seventeenth century. As well as providing various gift options for birthdays/anniversaries, historic newspapers also have a historical research team. I was very impressed by the condition of the newspapers, as well as the gift box and tissue wrapping in which they were packaged. 

They have very kindly provided a discount code: 15TODAY. It can be redeemed against any of their original newspapers. 

* Thank you to Alan Burkitt-Gray for providing this information in his comment below.