Sunday 26 May 2013

On reflection

Open City do far more than organise the annual Open House event. I joined their photographic walk around the City of London, where the contemporary architecture ... encouraged reflection.

Thursday 23 May 2013

Spam spam spam

If you've ever left, or considered leaving, a comment on this site then you'll know that I moderate all comments. It's not because I don't trust my readers; rather, it's the only way to stem a deluge of spam. Much of it is just annoying, but some is full of obscenities or hate-speech, which is why I can't risk it sitting there while I'm offline - and I do have to sleep!

Many spammers do try to hide their dodgy links within genuine-seeming comments. Unfortunately, as the selection below demonstrates, these are rarely convincing.
'Paragraph writing is also a fun, if you be familiar with then you can write otherwise it is complicated to write.' Although grammar, spelling and punctuation are apparently not required.

'Is it only me or do some of the comments come across like they are written by brain dead visitors?' Only you, dear spammer, only you.

'Hello my family member!' Er...

'For most up-to-date news you have to pay a visit world-wide-web and on web I found this web page as a best site for most up-to-date updates' - and where better for up-to-date-updateness than a history blog?

'My site goes over a lot of the same topics as yours.' No, I can assure you that I have never blogged on American auto insurance. Not even once.

'great post, very informative. I'm wondering why the opposite experts of this sector do not understand this'. Ah yes, the so-controversial story of the Wells Conduit with its 'opposite experts'.

'This is a great tip especially to those fresh to the blogosphere.' No, it's a ghost sign.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

London Motor Museum

One of London's less well-known museums, the Motor Museum also takes an unusual approach. Rather than the vintage vehicles which form the core of most collections, its attention is firmly on custom machines. Like the Sewing Machine Museum, it's one person's collection: the owner, Elo, worked in fashion before turning all his attention to his hundreds of cars.



There are some other vehicles, too - a small collection of tractors, including a customised one, and even a bicycle. 

Two caveats - admission isn't cheap (although it costs much less when bought online); and the museum is actually in Hayes, Middlesex, around the corner from the station.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Celestial noses

For the annual Museums at Night event, the Wellcome Collection chose a theme it nose is not to be sniffed at! 

Activities ranged from nose-flute making to something for those of us with sensitive noses: a garden demonstrating which plants do and don't cause hayfever. 

Bottles of smells confronted visitors with aromas from cinnamon to chloroform. 

A talk on the nose's cultural history introduced me to the pseudoscience of nasology. A little further investigation shows that this theory, first published in 1848, shines an interesting light on Victorian science and popular culture. The original book, Nasology, was reprinted in seven further editions as Notes on Noses. In fact, its inventor George Jabet had intended it as a joke, a satire on phrenology and ethnology:
We believe that, besides being an ornament to the face, a breathing apparatus, or a convenient handle by which to grasp an impudent fellow, it is an important index to its owner's character ... Nasology is strictly in harmony with the deductions of the ablest physiognomists and ethnologists.
Such study of moral character through physical characteristics - whether the contours of the skull or the line of the nose - was taken seriously as a scientific enterprise in the nineteenth century. Thus, whatever the author's intentions, the classification he offered fit readily into cultural understandings of the body. The media and even some phrenologists eagerly took it up, not always grasping its intent (and indeed, the Daily Mail was happy to print a very similar article in 2011!).

This categorisation of physical characteristics is, of course, not always benign. Nasology offered six types of noses, including the Roman, Greek, Cogitative, Snub and Jewish, as well as discourses on 'national noses' and women's noses. Even if much of the anti-Semitic, racist and sexist exposition was intended to satirise the ethnology and attitudes of the time (and that's often unclear), it makes for unpleasant reading today. 

On a lighter note, the final nose type - my own - is the Celestial. That may sound charming, but unfortunately the author considered such upturned noses far from heavenly. Their possessors were deemed to have 'natural weakness, mean, disagreeable disposition, with petty insolence'. Thank goodness it's all nonsense ...

Thursday 16 May 2013

New-old sauce

When I shared some Scarborough ghost signs, I couldn't resist including this 1960s poster for HP sauce. 

However, this is actually a poster with a story! Cathy, who's Nekoglyph on flickr, kindly left a comment to explain. Her photograph of the poster got a response from the owner of the shop. It turns out that the advert hasn't been hanging around for decades at all, but was pasted up for filming of The Royal - a period hospital drama filmed around Whitby and Scarborough. 

While the Scarborough poster may be a cheeky impostor, the History of Advertising Trust has a lovely image of the original. (And when you visit their site, don't forget to have a look at the Ghostsigns archive!)

Sunday 12 May 2013

Horse & Motor Contractors

Barbon Close, a narrow alley off Great Ormond Street, shelters a rather nice old sign. A notice in the London Gazette shows that G Bailey & Sons were wound up in 1951, so the painted wooden board has been around for a while. 

The description of the company as "horse and motor contractors" reminds us of the period when horses were still in regular work even as motor vehicles made their presence increasingly felt.In fact, that period was more extended than we might at first think. Although most of London's buses were motor vehicles by the time of the First World War, many other businesses continued to use horses beyond the end of the Second World War. In fact, there was still a rag-and-bone man on the streets of Holloway when I first moved to London in the 1990s. 

G Bailey seem to have navigated this mixed market well: in 1929, for example, their tender for the hire of five large petrol lorries was accepted by the London County Council. If their sign is any indication, the company was not run extravagantly: hints of an earlier sign are now showing through with a large letter M at the start of the top row and what looks like the start of 'depository' beneath. Indeed, the premises were used as a depository in the first part of the century, so it seems an old sign has been frugally reused. 

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Walking Rotherhithe Tunnel

While Greenwich and Woolwich have pedestrian foot tunnels, nearby Rotherhithe is generally thought of as a tunnel for motorists. In fact, there is pedestrian access as well, with a pavement provided on each side of the roadway. In the interests of tunnel completeness, I decided to take a walk inside.

The visit begins well: pedestrians have a choice of walking down the gentle slope descending to the tunnel entrance or nipping through a welcoming gate and down some steps. At first, with the open air above and an adequately wide footpath, all seems good.

However, the interior of the tunnel is definitely not pedestrian-friendly. As the inscription above the entrance reminds us, it was opened in 1908 when most traffic was horse-drawn. Although the air may have been made piquant by horse manure and the occasional petrol engine, it must have been like nectar compared to the thick exhaust fumes filling the space today. Whatever the Edwardian creators of this tunnel may have intended, it's no place for the non-motorist now.

While pollution and congestion are the main criticisms levelled at the tunnel by modern users, the concerns at the time of its construction were rather different. That gentle entrance slope (vital for horse-drawn vehicles), the ventilation shafts and the new roads all take up substantial space, and the 3,000 local residents displaced by its building were vehement opponents of the scheme. Nonetheless, London County Council proceeded with the project.

The wonderfully-named Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, the council's engineer, designed it; Edward H Tabor directed construction. Fitzmaurice had been engineer (with David Hay) for the Blackwall Tunnel, before going to Egypt to work on the Aswan Dam. After his return to London, he was the council's chief engineer and among his other major projects was the Woolwich foot tunnel.

Part of the construction was by the cut-and-cover method but most required the use of tunnelling shields. Their cutting edges remain on-site, forming the entrance arches to the tunnel which is lined with cast-iron segments, covered in tiles. It is just under 1.5 kilometres long, and its maximum depth is 23 metres below the surface.

Given that length, ventilation is essential. There are four ventilation shafts: two marked by cupolas familiar to travellers along the Thames, and two rather more plain models set back from the river. The cupolas have staircases which once allowed pedestrian access to the tunnel, but they were closed due to damage in the Second World War and have never reopened.

From the Rotherhithe end, the tunnel soon angles to the right and so it emerges further east across the Thames, in Limehouse. The tunnel's purpose was to serve the docks at its termini; a straight line between them would have had two problems - the docks themselves were in the way; and it was feared that if there was daylight visible ahead, horses might bolt. 

In 1908, the tunnel was opened by the Prince of Wales (the future George V). Welcoming 2,600 vehicles a day, it was considered a great success. Today, about 34,000 pass through each day, along with an estimated 20 (fool)hardy pedestrians. As for me, having washed the exhaust fumes away, I'm in no hurry to descend into the tunnel again. 

Further reading: Dr Amanda Squires' article for Rotherhithe & Bermondsey Local History Society. Fin Fahey's photographic comparison of the entrance 1909/2006. Wonderful photos of the tunnel's construction in the Science & Society Picture Library.

I have also walked in the more pleasant Woolwich foot tunnel and - just before London Overground moved in - the historic Thames Tunnel.

Sunday 5 May 2013

London Sewing Machine Museum

London is best known for its large, national museums - and they are very fine. However, one of its hidden joys is the scattering of small, unusual museums in the city. Few are more specialist than the London Sewing Machine Museum, whose scope is apparent from its name. It is conveniently close to Tooting Bec tube station, and less conveniently open just once a month. 

Walk up the steps, past the small displays on the landing, and on entering the museum itself you can't help but be struck by the sheer numbers of machines. Yet this is only half the available space: there are plenty more sewing machines in adjacent rooms. Some are displayed in a recreated shopfront and workshop; others are interspersed with charming pieces of Victoriana. There are over 600 in total.

Incredibly, this is all the collection of one man, Ray Rushton. His father began selling second-hand sewing machines shortly after the Second World War, and Ray helped out transporting and renovating the machines. Thus a passion was born: the collection now includes one of the very first sewing machines as well as others with royal connections (including the machine which belonged to Queen Victoria's eldest daughter). There are also a number of intriguing variations which perform specialist roles such as stitching leather, carpet or gloves. 
Cloth cutting machine, 1906
Some of the sewing machines have had movie careers: they are hired out to film makers who want machines of particular types or periods. Famous or not, though, they deserve a visit: sewing enthusiasts will be enthralled, while those of us rather less familiar with the machines will enjoy the chance to wonder at their sheer variety. This is also an important part of our social history: from workers in the textile industries to the housewife buying her Singer on hire purchase - not to mention the occasional princess - few sections of society have been untouched by the sewing machine.

Practical information: Open first Saturday of the month, 2-5pm.
London Sewing Machine Museum, Wimbledon Sewing Machine Co, 292-312 Balham High Road, SW17 7AA.
Admission free (donations to one of the charity boxes are appreciated).
Access via a flight of stairs.

More photos here.

Friday 3 May 2013

Conservation complete!

The west wall of the Painted Hall, that elaborate dining room at the heart of Greenwich's Old Royal Naval College, is now unveiled. After a conservation programme which saw it shrouded in scaffolding - and allowed the public behind the scenes - the newly rich, vivid colours of this baroque artwork are once more revealed.While the main hall remains as impressive as ever, the additional glow of the restored area at its end is striking. 

It was fun to spot areas previously seen up-close from the scaffold - and to see once more how they fitted into the wider scheme. 

The decoration is rich with references designed to flatter the royal family and remind others of their and the nation's achievements. Some of these are subtler than others: you don't need to be able to decode the work's symbolism to understand the point of a scroll listing naval victories!

However, while the main theme is the glory of Britain and its rulers, there are also tributes by the artist James Thornhill to himself. He appears in the foreground, presenting his work. 

Above him is St Paul's Cathedral. While his patrons may have appreciated its royal connections and impressive appearance, it also - by a happy coincidence - featured one of his other major works. Thornhill had painted the scenes from the life of St Paul inside its famous dome.

After yesterday's official unveiling, the Painted Hall is now showing off its west wall to the public once again.