Sunday 30 December 2012

Top ten posts of 2012

As 2012 is almost over, I'm seeing it out with a look at the most popular posts of the last year. First, the top five of those written in 2012: 

  1. In August, I asked whether Spitalfields has London's ugliest example of facadism. I still haven't found a worse one, though there are some interesting suggestions in the comments ... 
  2. Second place went to a much more attractive piece of heritage: two marvellous Soho ghost signs
  3. Purely fantastical, many of the designs for a great tower for London could never have been built. Sadly, the one which was selected was not completed; its foundations are now under Wembley Stadium
  4. The Olympics had to sneak in somewhere, and did so via my selection of national Olympic Houses - from the Danes' LEGO stadium model to the craftspeople of the African village. 
  5. A piece of pure silliness takes fifth place: Aldgate's underground toilets still display advanced warning of changes made fifteen years ago!
Sometimes blogging can feel rather ephemeral, so it's lovely that posts from previous years are still getting visitors. Again, here are the top five:

  1. In top place are the morbidly fascinating catacombs of Paris, created from its underground quarries and filled with the bones of its dead. It's perhaps testimony to the power of the image search that a less skull-filled companion piece has never received as much attention. 
  2. Back in London, but originally from much further afield, the British Museum's wonderful Assyrian animal carvings are another long-term favourite. 
  3. Heavy rains have seen the Thames Barrier close several times in recent days. Thankfully, it's kept well-maintained, with an annual closure for inspections and checks. I took a look in 2008
  4. An Open House visit to a local property, Stone House, allowed me to share one of Lewisham's hidden gems. 
  5. The servants' bells at Tyntesfield are a reminder of the realities of stately home life. It seems that the New York Times was unimpressed by such British technology, however. 

I'll give special mentions to the ghost signs and Postman's Park pages which have also proved popular throughout the year. 

Finally, and most importantly, huge thanks to everyone who has read and commented throughout 2012. My very best wishes for 2013!

Thursday 27 December 2012

From the archives: St Lubbock's Day

As the bank holidays finish and many of us head back to work, we should spare a thought for the man who gave many of us yesterday off. 

Yesterday's bank holiday may have offered indifferent weather, but it's still cause to be grateful to Sir John Lubbock, instigator of such days. He was a true Victorian polymath: a banker, MP, archaeologist and scientist (where his work extended across entomology, anthropology and statistics).

Among Sir John's diverse parliamentary interests was the increasing of workers' free time. In pursuance of this, he was responsible for the Bank Holidays Act 1871. It created four new bank holidays in addition to the commonly-recognised Christmas and Good Friday. Easter Monday, the first Monday in August, Boxing Day and Whit Monday became recognised days of rest in England and Wales (the last of these has since had its date fixed as the final Monday in May and several more have been added).

This innovation was, unsurprisingly, very popular and the days were nicknamed St Lubbock's Days (a piece of slang which seems to have persisted until the First World War). It's impressive to think that the man who changed our working lives so significantly was also the inventor of the terms palaeolithic and neolithic, a prolific author on natural history, and a leading light in many learned societies and professional organisations. If such a busy man could say "rest is not idleness", we can all feel justified in enjoying our days off!

Image: John Lubbock, First Baron Avebury, from Wikipedia.

Friday 21 December 2012

A London Christmas

The Boxing Day tube strike is becoming a tradition, but there are plenty of others which are more enjoyable. Here's a quick round-up of some London-y festive favourites.
  • The Christmas lights on Oxford Street may be a Marmite advert this year, but there are plenty of more seasonal illuminations to be found. Discover them with Westminster Walking - and as a bonus, the walk starts and ends in pubs! It runs on Sunday and on Thursday 27 December. 
  • Westminster Walking also has other suggestions for walks over the holiday period
  • Christmas crackers are a London invention (in France, they make do with sweets). Confectioner Tom Smith adapted the French bon bon wrapped in paper by adding a motto, then the all-important snap; finally, he replaced the original sweet with a gift. Smith is remembered by a fountain in Finsbury Square. There's film of Edwardian cracker-making here
  • Perhaps the most challenging London Christmas quiz is the fiendish effort from London Reconnections. There are prizes, and you have until New Year's Day to work out the answers. 
  • Look back on the London year with the Londonist Out Loud podcast
  • Finally, last posting dates have passed but there's still time to send new year wishes with a Christmas stamp

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Ghost signs (84): Scarborough

W W Heslop, Butchers were clearly very proud of being army contractors. I'm not sure that actually conveys an impression of quality, but perhaps it was meant to appeal to other large institutions rather than the ordinary passer-by. The shading on the lettering is very nice, though. 

If bulk-bought meat is not your thing, then here's a sweeter (if simpler) sign. It's arguably not a true ghost sign, since rock is still being made and sold in the shop below. 

Further along the sea front is a rather sombre reminder: a sign for A Castle and Sons, Stonemasons, Carpenters and Gravediggers. It appears to have been repainted relatively recently, although I saw no signs of the original business. 

Finally, this is not strictly a ghost sign - but who could resist a 1960s poster, exposed once again on its wall? HP Sauce were exhorting shoppers to 'give your chips yum, Mum'. [Update: there's a story behind this poster!]

Sunday 16 December 2012

Signposts (8): Flint stone

On the road from Hawarden, just over the Welsh border from Chester, is a cast-iron milestone. Although the  sides are lichen-covered and not as clear as they should be, the top is still easily legible: 'County of Flint 1892'. The Milestone Society describe a similar milestone, not far away in Halkyn, so it may have been a standard design. Frustratingly, although there appear to be foundry details on the base these are now illegible. 

Counties had been given responsibility for milestones in 1888. By this date, their importance had waned significantly. They were no longer needed for calculating postage, since there was a standard postal rate paid in advance using a stamp; turnpikes were less important now that trains had replaced coaches. Nonetheless, the County of Flint clearly saw a use for them and proudly added its name and the date to this example. Today, the cars speed by far too quickly for it to be read. But then, they probably don't need to know that Chester is precisely 6 miles 0 furlongs away - or that Northop is exactly 5 miles and Holywell 11 miles 2 furlongs in the other direction. 

Friday 14 December 2012

P B Cow: Deptford, waterproof tweed and the Goldfish Club

The marvellously-named Peter Brusey Cow was born in Deptford in 1815. Although he would work in Chelsea and the City of London from the age of 15, it was to Deptford that he returned both to marry and to set up his first factory. 

Cow's early career had been in drapery, but he also had contact with Charles Macintosh & Co, known for their waterproof goods. In 1846, he accepted a share in the company's Cheapside branch and for a while, lived and worked at the premises. In 1850, he bought the Macintoshes' share for £4,000 and renamed the business P B Cow, Rubber Manufacturer. 

It was perhaps his early connection with the town, as well as its industrial activity, which encouraged Cow to open his first factory at Deptford Creek. He moved back there, along with his wife and five children. The year was thus a very busy one, because P B Cow also exhibited their waterproof tweed at the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, winning an award. 

In fact, the company's move was so successful that larger premises were soon needed - meaning another move, to Streatham. Cow would live there until his death in 1890. Deptford's association with waterproof tweed was thus fairly brief, but fruitful. 

As for the company, it went on to create the Li-Lo inflatable air-bed as well as manufacturing a wide range of rubber goods from hot water bottles to air-sea rescue equipment. The latter led to the founding of the Goldfish Club: during the Second World War, the company heard from a number of aircraft crew who had been rescued in P B Cow dinghies after ditching in water. Its Chief Draughtsman 'Robbie' Robertson set up the club so that members could exchange experiences; the company gave financial backing. There were over 9,000 members by the end of the war and although the company's direct link to the club ended in 1947 when Robertson left, the Goldfish Club is still going strong today

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Post Haste

Here's a timely - if rather peculiar - reminder to post early for Christmas, made by the Post Office in 1943. Now, where did I put those cards...

Sunday 9 December 2012

Winter stroll: Postman's Park

For a little fresh air on a cold day, Postman's Park is ideal. This little green space sheltered by buildings manages to pack plenty of interest in a small area. There is a tiny fishpond, some rather nice planting and, at the entrance gate, a memorial fountain and an old, blue police call box. 

The main feature is, of course, the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice which commemorates 'ordinary heroes'. Browse these wonderful (if tragic) Victorian stories, each so neatly encapsulated in a sentence that you don't have to linger longer than the weather allows. When you're ready to return indoors, leave by the St Martin's Le-Grand exit, cross the road, and take the escalator up to the Museum of London. One of the highlights is the (indoor) Victorian street; admission is free.

Having appreciated the atmosphere of the park, you can explore its stories further on my Postman's Park page. There are links to more detailed accounts of all the stories on the plaques. 

Thursday 6 December 2012

Winter stroll: Nelson's Ship in a Bottle

London is very cold just now, and while bracing fresh air is always good, you can have too much of a good thing! In order to make the most of the daylight, without risking frostbite, I shall be offering a few ideas for outdoor points of interest which are conveniently close to warm, indoor attractions with cafes. 

First is Yinka Shonibare MBE's work, Nelson's Ship in a Bottle. It originally appeared on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square, but now has a permanent home at the National Maritime Museum.

The ship in a bottle is a very traditional ornament, and this massively over-sized version has an equally traditional choice of subject: Nelson's HMS Victory. At the neck is a 'wax seal', featuring the artist's initials. However, this is not simply a very large version of an ordinary object. There are non-traditional elements too; in particular, the sails are printed with African textile designs. 

One of Shonibare's interests is post-colonialism, and the fabrics used here feature in much of his other work. He points out that while they are seen as traditionally African, they actually have a more complex, cross-cultural background. The fabrics are Dutch wax cloth, with patterns inspired by Indonesian designs; these particular pieces were made near Manchester. Shonibare's own history is similarly cross-cultural: born in London, he spent much of his childhood in Nigeria before returning to the city in his teens. 

Once you've admired the ship (and noted the vents for an air-conditioning system cleverly concealed in its plinth), look beyond it to Greenwich Park and the Royal Observatory. You can then walk into the National Maritime Museum to find out more about Nelson (and have a hot drink in the cafe). Admission is free. 

Wednesday 5 December 2012

London smog

60 years ago today, the 'Great Smog' enveloped London. To mark the anniversary of that miserable event, which killed an estimated 12,000 people, I'm republishing a post from 2010 telling the story of London's'pea-soupers'.

London Particulars

New Cross Road has a lovely new coffee shop, London Particular. It even has its own London Particular blend of coffee. But where does the name come from?

There were two London Particulars: the thick smogs which enveloped the city and an equally thick pea soup named after them. The tribute was apt: Londoners referred to their fogs as 'pea-soupers'. In Sherlock Holmes' Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, Dr Watson described one thus:

In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London. From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses ... when, for the fourth time, after pushing back our chairs from breakfast we saw the greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops upon the window-panes, my comrade's impatient and active nature could endure this drab existence no longer. ...

"Look out of this window, Watson. See how the figures loom up, are dimly seen, and then blend once more into the cloudbank. The thief or the murderer could roam London on such a day as the tiger does the jungle, unseen until he pounces, and then evident only to his victim."
It's hard for those of us brought up with relatively clean air to imagine what these smogs were like. A thick yellow blanket of coal smoke mixed with damp air, they literally killed people. Even for those not choked by them, there was the terrifying experience of not being able to see vehicles, familiar landmarks, or the ground beneath one's feet. Londoners got lost, fell over, and relied on street lamps burning all day to help them navigate. The Victorian city had streetlights: the smog was what gave its darker side that ominous gloom.

These fogs persisted into the twentieth century, as houses, factories, gasworks and power stations continued to burn coal. The Great Smog of 5-9 December 1952 killed 4,000 people in a matter of days, and perhaps three times as many in total. There was no escape: it made its way indoors, polluting rooms and causing or aggravating respiratory conditions. Some people also died from falling into the now-invisible Thames. Outdoors, people covered their noses and mouths with handkerchiefs or scarves. Performances were cancelled due to poor visibility and coughing audiences, road transport became impracticable, schools closed. At its thickest, visibility was so low that people couldn't see their own feet. Nickel in the Machine has a collection of photographs, with eye-witness accounts in the comments.

Parliament was prompted to act, and the Clean Air Act 1956 marked the beginning of the end for the genuine London Particular. It lives on in benign form as a cultural reference, an evocation of Holmesian atmosphere, and a rather nice coffee shop.

Image: Nelson's Column, December 1952, shared by N T Stobbs under a Creative Commons licence.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Sub-station with style

A wrong turn led to a chance discovery, as I happened across a rather special Parisian building. The Opera sub-station was the first of its kind for the Metro system, converting high-voltage alternating current into low-voltage direct current. The ground floor held the machines which converted the current, while secondary batteries (used to power both the machinery and the metro's emergency lighting) were on the first floor. They are linked by a spiral staircase still visible through the windows; the second floor is a later addition. 

The building blends elegantly with its surroundings; even the mosaic sign looks more stylish than practical. However, a peep through the grating confirms its industrial nature. 

The sub-station was the work of Paul Friésé, an outstanding industrial architect who had already designed several power stations. He built the sub-station in 1903 as part of the network's move to its own power supply. When the metro first opened in 1898 it took its electricity from other generating companies, but it was already building a power station at Bercy. That produced alternating current at 12,000 volts (direct current won't travel long distances). Since the network used direct current of considerably lower voltage, sub-stations were needed. Friésé built both power station and sub-stations; prompted by my Opera discovery, I visited another example at Bastille.

This sub-station, designed by Friésé in 1911, again fits stylishly into the cityscape. Its clever use of arched windows and occasional notes of whimsy, such as the turret at one corner, testify to Friésé's talent.

With a new system in place, and such attractive housing for it, this should have been a golden moment for the metro. However, it coincided with one of its worse tragedies, the Couronnes disaster.

On 10 August 1903, a short-circuit under a train caused a fire. The original flames were quickly put out and the carriages evacuated. The passengers moved into the next train, but when the burning train became unable to continue on its own, the second train was emptied of passengers so it could push the first down the line to the terminus. However, the damaged motor was still in contact with the live rail: there was no way of disengaging it. The fire re-erupted at Menilmontant station and this time, it could not be brought under control.

Meanwhile, the two trains' passengers had got into a third train, which now stopped in Couronnes station. The passengers were told to leave both train and station, but there were problems. First, the crowd (many of whom were now extremely fed up at being forced to leave three trains in turn) stopped to argue about fare refunds. Secondly, smoke from the tunnel suddenly began to fill the station. In an attempt to avoid it, many moved away to the far end of the platform - which had no exit. Matters were made worse by lack of light as the power supply failed. When firemen were finally able to enter, they found 84 asphyxiated bodies - 75 at Couronnes, the others at Menilmontant or in the tunnel.

The disaster led to fundamental changes designed to improve safety. These included the provision of emergency lighting, clear signage, and emergency exits. Drivers' cabs were built of metal instead of wood, so they would catch fire less easily. The provision of power to the trains was also reviewed, in particular so that the supply to sections of track could more easily be cut altogether. In this atmosphere, the reassuring appearance of Friésé's buildings on the city's streets must have helped to restore shaken public confidence in the new transport system. 

As for Friésé himself, his architectural work ended when, aged 63, he enlisted as a military interpreter at the outbreak of the First World War. He was wounded on the western front and died of his injuries in 1917.

His buildings are no longer operating as substations, but continue to be used by the metro system.

Further reading: there is a detailed account (in French) of the Couronnes disaster here