Thursday 31 January 2013


Members of the Cutlers' Company made swords, scissors and knives as well as cutlery. By the late nineteenth century, when this frieze was sculpted, their work in the City had largely moved to surgical instruments. It is the work of Benjamin Creswick, a former apprentice knife-grinder until ill-health forced a change of career. He initially taught himself modelling, before becoming a protege of John Ruskin. 

Here we see the forgers - on the left, hot scissors are being plunged into the hardening trough; another man is forging scissors while the next is working the bellows. Those to the right are forging table knifes as more steel is delivered to them. (Click images to enlarge.)

Now we are at the grinding stage of the process. The blades are ground, polished and checked for smoothness; then we see more grinders as well as men bringing more work and a new grindstone.

Hafters make handles for the knives. Here they file them, fill them with compound, polish them, then drill, shave and rivet them. 

The final panel once again shows scissors being made. They are hardened in the fire, bored, glazed, finished and tested. 

Creswick's personal knowledge of the trade must have informed his work on these panels. He has also included hints of the workers' lives as well as their actions: a man remonstrating with another as he works, a child watching his father whose dinner he has brought. 

When the frieze was sculpted in the 1880s, it was already a record of the past. Most production had moved to Sheffield, although about thirty cutlers did still work in the capital. Today, they have gone - Wilkinson closed their Acton sword factory in 2005 - and the Cutlers are as concerned with charitable activity as with the making of blades. There is a well-known reminder of their former influence, however: Elephant and Castle is named for the company's crest. 

Sunday 27 January 2013

Paternoster Square Column

At first glance, the Monument appears to have taken a walk and settled somewhat closer to St Paul's Cathedral. However, even a cursory second look is enough to spot that this column is not only different but also significantly smaller (23 metres rather than 62 metres). It's the central feature of the cathedral's neighbour Paternoster Square.

How do you design a structure which will complement St Paul's? The answer for architects Whitfield Partners seems to have been to look to Wren's other work as well as the Cathedral's history for ideas. The result, this column, appeared in 2003. The stonemasons responsible were CWO, who have also done restoration work on the nearby Temple Bar as well as on the Monument itself.

The Paternoster Square version is apparently a replica of Inigo Jones's columns on Old St Paul's Cathedral, but the parallels with Wren's work are perhaps more obvious. It even has an urn of flames at the top. This commemorates two fires which destroyed the area - the Great Fire of 1666, and the Blitz of late December 1940 which saw not only buildings but also huge numbers of books destroyed in what was then Paternoster Row, a centre of the publishing industry. 

The most obvious distinction, size aside, between the two columns is the very different base of the Paternoster Square column. There is a good reason for this: it is not purely decorative, but also provides ventilation for the car park below. 

Is this a thoughtful response to an eminent neighbour and its history, or an unimaginative if fairly uncontroversial response to the site? I'm really not sure ...

More straightforwardly pleasing is the sculpture by Elisabeth Frink, Paternoster. It refers to the site's past as a livestock market as well as its religious significance. 

Friday 25 January 2013

Fantastic fire station

The Rousseau fire station in the rue du Jour, Paris, has some fine signs and details collected since it was built in 1897. From the enamel plaque for a now-absent bell, to the illuminated signs across the facade and the red-paned lamp, there's plenty of detail to catch the eye. 

To either side of the doors are round objects, cunningly disguised as firemen's helmets. They are examples of a familiar piece of street furniture in Paris, designed to protect building corners from damage by horse-drawn vehicle. Most are less colourful and decorative, however!

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Steam on the Underground

On Sunday, I was fortunate to take one of the trips marking London Underground's 150th birthday. An anxious morning waiting for confirmation that the event would go ahead, and a cold wait on a snowy platform, were more than worthwhile!


Sunday 20 January 2013

Strand District Board of Works, 1855

The Metropolitan Board of Works, whose chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette built London's sewage system, is relatively well-known. Bazalgette could realise his great project because, for the first time, there was a single body which could take control for the whole city. It is less well-known that the Metropolitan Board was the top level of a system which also included a number of vestries and District Boards of Works. These bodies could each nominate a member to the Metropolitan Board.

This relief in Covent Garden marks the former headquarters of the Strand District Board of Works at 22 Tavistock Street. Its inscription gives the full name of the board, and the date 1855: the year in which the body was founded. The building itself was not completed until 1857, and is in part an example of the board's frugality. They held the land on an 80-year least from the Duke of Bedford; rather than appoint an outside architect, their surveyor G F Fry designed it; while the building contract was put out to tender. W T Purkiss's bid of £3,472 was successful. He and Fry produced a rather nice building, with some surprisingly light-hearted flourishes for the home of a public body. 

The Strand District Board was one of the very smallest in London, by some way (it was responsible for a few tens of thousands of inhabitants, compared to the 320,000 in Islington vestry).  The board of works survived until 1900 when London's boards and vestries were replaced by 28 boroughs. Despite opposing the change, Strand District was incorporated into the new Metropolitan Borough of Westminster.  By 1905, Baedeker's guide to London listed the property as a tailor's. Nonetheless, the board has left a proud reminder on this building to testify to its existence and civic status.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Glamorous Croydon Airport

The midday service to Croydon had started. It contained twenty-one passengers - ten in the forward carriage, eleven in the rear one. It had two pilots and two stewards. The noise of the engines was very skilfully deadened. There was no need to put cotton wool in the ears. Nevertheless there was enough noise to discourage conversation and encourage thought.

When Agatha Christie sent the glamorous characters of Death in the Clouds on a flight home from Le Bourget airport, Paris, of course they landed in Croydon. It was the first purpose-built passenger airport in the world and a stylish destination for anyone flying into London. Famous aviators of the period also flew to and from here: this was the departure and return point for Amy Johnson's record-breaking flights to Australia and South Africa (in the Pathe newsreel below), while Charles Lindbergh landed here at the end of his solo transatlantic flight.

Today, the main terminal building still survives - converted into offices, but with much of its character intact and a museum in the control tower. 

Beddington Airfield and Waddon Aerodrome, built during the First World War, were combined in 1920 as Croydon Aerodrome. During the following decade, the air terminal building was added, along with a hotel. This was also the first airport to introduce air traffic control. When Imperial Airways, later BOAC and now British Airways, were created in 1924 by merging existing companies at the government's behest, they were based here.

There was no passenger car park: wealthier passengers arrived in chauffeur-driven vehicles while the slightly less wealthy were brought by bus from VictoriaAlthough flying was a more luxurious experience between the wars than it is today, waiting at the terminal was not. With no other examples to model itself upon, it was inspired by railway stations - so the booking hall had wooden benches for passengers to sit on while they waited to board. There was also a small shop: very different to the large retail areas in modern departure lounges.

In the Second World War, Croydon became a base for fighter planes and was thus important in the Battle of Britain. Although it returned to civil use after the war, its air traffic declined drastically as new, larger airports took over. In 1959, it closed altogether.

Practical information: the Visitor Centre and museum is open on the first Sunday of every month. Admission £2.
Address: Purley Way, Croydon, CR0 0XZ.
More information here

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Underground ... by atmosphere?

A section of pipe in the Museum of Croydon and a former water pumping station are the visible traces of an experiment which, if more successful, might have led to a rather different Underground. The use of steam locomotives was by no means inevitable: given the problems of running smoky engines through confined tunnels, alternatives were considered. A promising option had been attempted in South London a few years before. 

The London and Croydon Atmospheric Railway opened in 1846, although the experiment failed within a year. Carriages were propelled along the line between Croydon and Forest Hill by a metal vacuum pipe which ran between the rails. A piston ran from the train to the pipe, and was pulled along by the vacuum created by pumps at either end. Since the engines were at the extremities of the line, travel between those points was quiet and clean.

However, to maintain the vacuum as the carriages moved along the pipe, the piston had to run between leather flaps which formed a seal in front and behind. That relied upon a great deal of flexibility in the leather,  and in practice there were frequent problems both with the pumping stations and in maintaining the seal. The appeal of the greased leather to rats didn't help! As a result, the experiment was abandoned. A section of the pipe can still be seen in the Museum of Croydon.

The line was soon absorbed into the regular railway, but parts of the West Croydon engine house made their way to the Surrey Street waterworks pumping station. It's not certain how much of the railway building was brought here: the listing text suggests that it may be no more than a few quoins (corner stones), while other sources suggest that large parts of the fabric were transported here and reused, albeit to a new design. The dark brick building of 1851 was extended in 1862 with the addition of a polychromatic brick building (to the right in this picture) and further enlarged thereafter. Today, it is empty and awaiting redevelopment. 

The Croydon experiment may not have succeeded but the idea had not died by the time the Metropolitan Line was being planned. In fact, another kind of atmospheric railway would be constructed at Crystal Palace in 1864. This time there was no awkward little pipe with its difficult-to-maintain seal. Instead, the whole carriage fitted inside the vacuum tube; a collar of bristles at its end kept the seal. It seems to have been successful, encouraging construction of a longer, more serious project: the Waterloo and Whitehall Pneumatic Railway. The Whitehall project would never be completed - a recession and banking crisis meant that funding ran out. It's a fascinating story, told in much more detail in an ebook by Ian of IanVisits.

A third scheme using stationary engines was a cable railway which had operated since 1840, between Minories and Blackwall. Its carriages were attached to a rope cable, and pulled along by an engine at each end. One carriage served each intermediate station, so all journeys had to be made via one of the termini. That doesn't seem to have put passengers off, and the change to steam locomotives in 1848 was made largely because of the cost of replacing worn ropes. The railway only finally closed in the mid-twentieth century. Today, parts of its line are used by the Docklands Light Railway. 

Sunday 13 January 2013

Ice sculpting in Docklands

This weekend, ice sculptors from around the world came to Canary Wharf to compete in a three-day festival. Perhaps the very chilly weather helped! 

Saturday 12 January 2013

London Underground's birthday album

There was lots of excitement about London Underground's 150th birthday this week, and one of its nicest manifestations was the sharing of historical images. Here are some of my favourites; if you've seen any others, I'd love to hear about them. 

The Science Museum had a lovely selection, from the first journey a year before opening, to early electric trains, to people sheltering in the Second World War. The various construction images are particularly good. The Guardian also created a gallery of photographs covering the network's history, as did the Independent and the Telegraph. History comes back to life in London Reconnections' coverage of the rehearsal for steam's return to the Underground this weekend. 

Exploring 20th Century London looked not at photographs but at London transport posters - a high point of  its heritage. Smitten by Britain also chose her (slightly irreverent) favourites. Victorian London shared a cross-section of Embankment station, and London Historian has a nice selection of Punch cartoons.

Perhaps the most famous image of the Underground is its map, and the BBC illustrated its development while Google used it as the basis for a celebratory doodle

Moving slightly away from image-based articles, people rather than pictures were the focus for BBC News, who looked at families whose history is intertwined with the Underground's. Meanwhile, Randomly London listed an epic 150 posts, from assorted media and around the world, about the anniversary. 

Finally, I've already shared British Pathe's film archive of the Underground, and a few photographs of my own.

Thursday 10 January 2013

Happy 150th birthday, London Underground!

150 years ago, on 10 January 1863, the London Underground opened its first line to the public. (There had been an official opening on the 9 January, with various dignitaries enjoying a banquet at Farringdon Station). The Metropolitan Line ran from Paddington, via Edgware Road, Baker Street, Portland Road [Great Portland Street], Gower Street [Euston Square] and King's Cross, to Farringdon. Built using the 'cut and cover' method (in effect, a huge trench was dug, then roofed over), it required 'the great and novel task of burrowing under ground for between three and four miles, of undermining streets and houses, of working in the midst of water pipes, gas pipes, sewers, mains and ditches', as the Daily News described. Their reporter's assessment of the journey was cautiously positive:
The first feeling created in the minds of those who come upon the new line with the ordinary ideas of railway travelling is one of disappointment, arising from the slowness of the progress made; but where there are five stations between the two terminal ones to be stopped at this is unavoidable. The comparative darkness is also a disagreeable feature of the line, but this again it was impossible under the circumstances to avoid, and wherever the sun's light could be admitted it has been let in. These two points are the principle drawbacks of the undertaking. In other respects the least inconvenience was not experienced. The train worked smoothly on the rails, the carriages were brought up with ease, there was no sense of oppression from want of air, and there was no inconvenience from vapour. 
The Times was equally upbeat, although its optimism about the atmosphere below ground would prove unfounded:
There is one point to which attention was attracted as being adverse to the general expectation, and that was that it was understood that there was to be no steam or smoke from the engines used in working this tunnel railway. All we can say is, that on one of the journeys between Portland-road and Baker-street, not only were the passengers enveloped in steam, but it is extremely doubtful if they were not subjected to the unpleasantness of smoke also.
Over the next century and a half, the underground would expand and in doing so, transform and reshape the city. It would also become an essential part of the city, one with which many of us continue to have a love-hate relationship. However, its early passengers had rather more to complain about than the first news reports might suggest, while many male staff found the atmosphere so bad that they sought permission to grow beards in an attempt to protect themselves. The mixture of steam and tunnels was not really a happy one, as I have discussed before, and electrification of the system in 1905 must have been a huge relief for its users. Of course, we have our own discomforts and annoyances to complain about today...

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Underground on film

The vast British Pathe newsreel archive includes plenty of film of the London Underground: from grand openings to disasters, the Queen to cleaners, Piccadilly Circus in 1925 to Aldwych in the Second World War. They've put together a selection to mark the 150th anniversary.

I particularly liked this behind-the-scenes look at training in 'Underground School' during the 1950s. Who wouldn't want to play with that train set?

Sunday 6 January 2013

Underground sesquicentennial!

The London Underground is about to celebrate its 150th anniversary. In the first of several posts making the event, here's a selection of images. 

The unique Barons Court station benches

Ticket machine, London Underground Museum Acton Depot
St Paul's Station

South Kensington station entrance

Carriage tube map detail, London Transport Museum Acton Depot

Piccadilly Circus world clock

Aldgate Station

For some stunning, long-hidden posters at Notting Hill station, click here

Friday 4 January 2013

19 Princelet Street

Tomorrow, 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields opens for a few hours - and if you're in London, I'd recommend a visit. From the exterior, this is just one of a terrace of rather nice houses, but there is much to discover inside. Indeed, a clue to the start of its story still hangs above the front door - a metal bobbin, sign of a silkweaver. 

The building has passed from being the home of an affluent Huguenot silk weaver to its current role as a museum of immigration via a number of transformations. Its original owners in 1719, the Ogiers, were French protestants who prospered in the silk trade. As the wealthier Huguenots left the area, however, the street declined and the house was subdivided. Its occupants reflected different waves of immigration; the most obvious change to the building's fabric was the 1870 building of a synagogue in the back garden by a Polish Jewish congregation. The building underwent major repairs in 1893. 

The synagogue closed in the 1960s although study groups continued to meet there for another decade. The house's last resident, David Rodinsky lived reclusively in an upper room until he disappeared in 1969; his room, and the mystery of his life were the subject of a book by artist Rachel Lichtenstein. The building entered a decline from which the current owners, The Spitalfields Centre, are trying to rescue it. Until they are able to repair and stabilise this delicate building, it can open only occasionally. 

The interior is very atmospheric and frustratingly photogenic: photography is not allowed. (This seems to be in order to safeguard postcard sales; I would suggest camera permits as an additional source of revenue.) As well as the traces of the house's past, there are two exhibitions: Suitcases and Sanctuary on immigration, and Leave to Remain by three refugee artists.  

Practical information: 19 Princelet Street, just off Brick Lane, is open from 2-4pm; expect queues. Admission is free but donations are appreciated. No photography allowed. 
For more information and future opening dates, click here