Sunday 30 June 2013

From pillar to pump

This rather unusual pump is in Montagu Square, Marylebone. (It's not unique: there's a very similar one in neighbouring Bryanston Square.) The surrounding houses were built in 1811, although the private garden in the centre is probably a few years older.

Dating from the early nineteenth century, the pump is a little mysterious: unlike most Victorian cast iron, it doesn't bear a foundry name. Presumably the Doric column is intended to reflect the elegance of the Regency houses surrounding the garden, whose inhabitants used the pump. Unusually, the square remains residential today - although the residents enjoy rather more modern plumbing!

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Ghost signs (91): Women only

At the weekend, I explored part of the New River - celebrating its 400th birthday later this year - on a walk with Peter Berthoud of Discovering London. As well as finding out lots about the history of this amazing engineering project, which still provides much of London's water, we also saw a rather intriguing ghost sign.

Until well into the nineteenth century, the New River ran along Colebrooke Row in Islington. However, it was a more conventional street by the time this sign was painted onto a large Georgian house. At the top, it appears to have said 'HOTEL' or 'HOSTEL', although only a few letters can now be made out. The rest of the lettering, though, is much clearer: 
9D and 1/- PER NIGHT
4/6 AND 6/- PER WEEK

There were clearly two classes of room: the ninepence per night/four shillings and sixpence a week economy option, and the more expensive choice at a shilling a night or six shillings for the week. Sadly, the sign doesn't indicate what the difference between them was. 

The house had somewhat reversed in purpose. Between 1894 and 1900, it had been certified as an auxiliary home for St Nicholas' Catholic Industrial School for Boys, able to house 40 pupils. The 1901 census shows it as a children's home, with a married couple as superintendent and matron; an assistant and cook to help them; and 39 boys aged between eight and thirteen, designated as boarders or inmates.

By 1911, the boys had gone, replaced by women. The only male in the household was the lodging house manager, who along with his wife and two servants had 30 boarders. Their professions give some idea of their social class: a corset maker, a piano teacher, a neck tie maker, a newspaper seller, many servants and dressmakers... Many had been born in London, but others came from elsewhere in Britain, from Ireland and from France. The entry concludes with a statement that the house had ten rooms (including the kitchen but excluding sculleries, bathrooms, landings and so on). 

The sign, despite its limited information, is therefore a window into social history. It reminds us not only that women have long been a crucial part of the workforce, - about a quarter of women were in paid employment at this time - but also that they faced considerable difficulties in finding accommodation. A year before the census, Mary Higgs had published Where Shall She Live? The Homelessness of the Woman Worker; in 1909, a petition had been presented to London County Council demanding a hostel for women. Such accommodation for working women, even when provided by reformers, often sounds rather unappealing, with cubicles rather than individual rooms (an option presumably taken for the thirty women in our ten-roomed house). 

Brabazon House in Pimlico - a philanthropic venture nonetheless promising a return for investors - charged five shillings and sixpence a week for a cubicle in 1915. The similarity of price supports the idea that our sign relates to the ladies' boarding house operating in 1911. It thus captures an important social moment, when women moved from home to take up employment in the city - with all the opportunities, and challenges, that brought. 

Sunday 23 June 2013

Weird and wonderful weathervanes

London is full of weathervanes, many of them unusual in some way. Here are just a few, starting with a rather special one in Woolwich. 
Most weathervanes involve a pointer which moves with the wind, and four bars underneath indicating north, south, east and west. You look up at the vane and calculate the direction in which it's pointing. However, that's not perhaps the easiest way to read the information - especially if you're some distance from the vane itself. That was the case at the Royal Arsenal, where guns and munitions were made: the gunners on the proof range, at the other end of an avenue from the Pattern Room, wanted to see the wind direction. The Pattern Room's vane therefore displayed the wind direction on a dial.

The weathervane works fundamentally in the usual way: the pointer is turned by the wind. However, rather than turning freely on the rod to which it is attached, it actually turns the rod as it moves. That allows the information to be transmitted to the pointer. The instrument was made locally: embossed on its face are the words Bennett, Greenwich, and Blackheath.The Bennetts were a clockmaking family in Greenwich.

More conventional in function, but less so in form, is the beaver-shaped weathervane on 60 Bishopsgate. It's a reminder of the building's former occupant, the Hudson Bay Company. Established in 1670, its founders were actually French but won the patronage of Charles II, who granted a charter to his cousin Prince Rupert. The company was given the lands around the Hudson Bay, and only ceded ownership of this territory to Canada in 1870. From that date, it focused upon retail business and now has department stores across Canada. After three centuries in London, it moved its headquarters to Toronto in 1970, leaving this distinctive weathervane as a reminder of its presence in the City.

Nearby, the weathervane on St Ethelburga's (a former church, now a Centre for Reconciliation and Peace) is dated 1671. That may suggest rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1666, the fate of most City churches, but in fact this building survived the fire and dates back to the fifteenth century. It did, however, suffer serious damage in the IRA's 1993 bombing of Bishopsgate, following which it required significant restoration. Among the surviving pieces found in the rubble was this weathervane.

I've previously looked at the Whitechapel Art Gallery weathervane, the Viking longboat catching the breeze on St Olav's Norwegian church, and the Royal London Building on Old Kent Road.  

Thursday 20 June 2013

All Saints, Margaret Street

Just behind Oxford Street, an architectural masterpiece and peaceful retreat from the commercial bustle stands in a small courtyard, alongside a vicarage and former choir school. The limited space available didn't stop its architect William Butterfield from producing one of the great Gothic Revival churches, All Saints, Margaret Street

While some people imagine the nineteenth century as a time of greater religious certainties, the reality was very different. Atheism and religious doubt, non-conformism, and Catholic and Jewish emancipation were just some of the prominent issues of the period. Within the established church, one controversial force was the Oxford Movement which sought a return to catholic doctrines; members of its close counterpart in Cambridge University, the Cambridge Camden Society, referred to themselves as 'Ecclesiologists'. They turned their focus onto church architecture; like Roman Catholic convert AWN Pugin, they agreed that Anglican churches should be Gothic in style and richly decorated. The focus should be upon the altar rather than the pulpit, and other features should have symbolic or ritual importance.

Although this Anglo-Catholic movement was thrown into turmoil by the conversion of one of its leaders, John Henry Newman, to Roman Catholicism in 1845, it remained strong and indeed would grow in influence in the second half of the century. Just five years after the 1845 crisis, All Saints was designed as a model church for the Ecclesiological Society (as the Cambridge Camden Society renamed itself).

While the spire was the highest in London when it was built, the exterior is otherwise somewhat constrained by its location. Nonetheless, exuberant use of polychromatic brickwork makes it visually arresting - a deliberate choice, not an economic one, since the brick was apparently more expensive than stone. However, it is the interior which is really extraordinary with its elaborate decoration. The geometric designs were advocated by Ruskin in The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

Perhaps most striking are the tiles along the north wall of the church, which make up five panels on Biblical themes. They were added in 1873, fourteen years after the church was completed, but were also by Butterfield. Originally the walls had geometric patterns but the panels were added as a memorial to the church's first vicar, William Upton Richards. 

Pevsner was not a fan: he found the interior "dazzling, though in an eminently High Victorian ostentatiousness or obtrusiveness.  It is by no means tasteful ...  The motifs are without exception big and graceless." I prefer Betjeman's more enthusiastic assessment: "For the smallness and confined nature of the site, the effect of space, richness, mystery and size is amazing."


Tuesday 18 June 2013

Ghost signs (90): Bexleyheath

This sign in Broadway, Bexleyheath is one of those unusual examples which has been both preserved and obscured by a later building. Its neighbour is only an alley-width away, making it both surprisingly fresh and more difficult to decipher and photograph. The fact its left portion and very lowest part have been covered in rendering doesn't help. 

We can see, however, that the sign advertised 'Snowden ... fitter to ... of taste', with a rather nice manicule pointing to the shop. 'Outfitter' seems a reasonable guess. Underneath is '...thur ... nt & Co ... agents for ... ath & District', which is more difficult although 'Arthur' leapt to mind for the first word, and 'agents for Bexleyheath and District' for the last part. And once more, we can appreciate the style of the sign (here, the distinctive two-tone lettering) even if its meaning is less than clear. 

Sure enough, some research confirms that while neither business existed in 1915, one Frederick George Snowden was a gentlemen's outfitter at 185 Broadway, Bexleyheath in 1927. The same edition of Kelly's Directory also listed Arthur Kent & Co, Estate Agents at 126 and 314 Broadway. Online company information suggests that Arthur Kent might have been trading into the 1990s, moving from the Broadway in 1992 and being wound up a few years later; F G Snowden appears to still be in business, although long gone from this address. 

Bexley Borough Photos, 1934 (detail)
However, we can narrow down the sign's origins rather more closely than that, with the help of the excellent selection of old photographs on Bexley Borough Council's website. In 1920, 185 Broadway was already an outfitters, but named E F Davison. By 1934, our sign was visible in all its glory in a photograph of the cinema across the road being built. The sign's neighbour was the original Conservative Club whose more spacious grounds left the sign visible. It must have been painted, therefore, between 1920 and 1933.

A close look at the photograph, and the wording is confirmed: 'F G Snowden, Outfitter to men of taste' and 'Arthur Kent & Co, House agents for Bexleyheath & District'. The bottom line, now obscured by rendering, is less clear but appears to say 'offices 126 Broadway'. Our mystery is largely solved! And in the process, something of the development of Bexleyheath town centre has been revealed.

Sunday 16 June 2013

Good deeds at the Foundling Museum

Over a thousand white cups and saucers are laid out on five long tables. Actually, that's not quite accurate: some saucers are all alone, their cups missing. Those empty saucers are worth a closer look, because each bears a good deed. 

This is Exchange, the Foundling Museum's exhibition by artist Clare Twomey. Each day, ten random visitors are given a token which they can exchange for a cup. However, there's a price: in taking a cup, you agree to undertake the good deed printed on its base and on the saucer below. You can't peep, and you can't change your mind - if you're not willing to do the deed, you put the cup back and go away empty-handed. 

The installation is inspired by the ideas of philanthropy, good deeds and exchange which underpinned the Foundling Hospital. It took in children whose parents were unable to look after them, acting as both orphanage and school; among the exhibits in the museum are little tokens left by mothers so that they could identify and reclaim their child if circumstances improved. Artistic supporters including Hogarth and Handel used their talents to encourage others to support the institution

The modern good deeds have been suggested by former pupils of the Foundling Hospital as well as other schools, charities, and supporters of the museum. I was one of the lucky ten visitors on the day of my visit, and duly picked my cup. It was a nerve-wracking moment, because some of the deeds already uncovered would have been beyond me. (For example, some required a car, and one a garden, neither of which I have.) I'm not sure that the deed I did select is terribly well-suited to my talents, but I'm committed and shall have to do my best!

So, I have undertaken to 'sew something for charity'. My sewing is pretty bad - let's just say that when I suggested I charge £1 to sew on a button or £2 not to sew on a button, my mum thought it would be lucrative! Any more productive ideas as to how best to achieve this challenge are therefore very welcome. 

Thursday 13 June 2013

Caisson to concert hall: the Thames Tunnel shaft

I've taken the train through Marc and Isambard Brunel's Thames Tunnel many times; on one memorable evening I even walked through it. However, I've always entered through an East London Line station. The thousands of Victorian pedestrians who were its first users took a rather different route down to it. 

Before the Brunels' tunnellers could dig horizontally below the Thames riverbed, they first had to dig vertically from surface level. They did so by building a caisson at Rotherhithe - a heavy brick cylinder atop an iron cutting edge, which sank into the ground under its own weight. The earth inside could then be dug out, leaving a nice, neat vertical shaft. This process was later repeated at the Wapping end of the tunnel. When the tunnel was completed, the shafts at each end formed convenient entrance halls, lined with spiraling staircases. (The original plan was to add two much larger shafts, holding gentle ramps, so that horses and carts could transport ships' cargoes through the tunnel. However, the money ran out before these could be built.)

The tunnel was not a great financial success. Never able to take the horse-drawn commercial traffic which might have made it profitable, it was reduced to collecting pennies from pedestrians. When the tunnel lost its novelty and became a sleazy, dangerous place it was reinvented as a fairground, before finding its vocation as a railway tunnel in 1869. The original Wapping entrance was later incorporated into the station building; at Rotherhithe, it was simply closed.

Then the East London Line was upgraded and reopened as part of London Overground in 2010. That created an opportunity for the neighbouring Brunel Museum, which tells the story of the tunnel. The contractors put a concrete floor into the upper part of the shaft (the lower part has railway lines running through it), the Museum was given use of it, and the possibility of entering the space for the first time in a century and a half was created. 

Indeed, that's just what I was able to do recently, as tours were offered during Open Garden Squares weekend. (This is not as odd as it sounds: the top of the shaft is now a lovely herb garden and sometimes cocktail bar.) It's not the easiest visit to make, involving a slightly precarious clamber down assorted steps before the visitor stoops or crawls through a narrow - but thankfully short - tunnel, ready for the final descent down temporary stairs. However, it's worth the effort as the space is quite special. It's large, cool, dimly-lit and almost empty of furnishings, but filled with murmurs of voices from above, the rumble of trains below, and its own slightly echoing acoustic. The walls still bear the scars of those earlier stairs down which Victorian sightseers descended. 

The Museum hopes to raise the money to open this shaft as a permanent space for exhibitions and events. In the meantime, it offers tours and concerts. I would recommend a visit - there are more details on the Museum website.

I also visited Park Crescent with its Nursemaids' Tunnel, and Garden Barge Square.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Nursemaids' Tunnel

Park Crescent is an elegant, curving terrace of houses just off Marylebone Road. It was designed by John Nash, and built between 1806 and 1821 (thanks to a break of some years after the original builder went bankrupt). Across the road, there was to be another crescent, forming a circus; the financial problems dogging the first development meant the other half was never built and the land became Park Square instead. Similarly, the centre of the circle was to have held a parish church but became Park Crescent gardens.


If you were wealthy enough to afford one of these townhouses (on a 99-year lease), you would have two things. The first was exclusive access to gardens in the crescent and Park Square; the second was a nursemaid to look after your children.What you didn't have was much enthusiasm for you and your children having to cross the very busy road between the two gardens. They are therefore linked by a tunnel; its gentle, sloping approaches are perfect for prams.

The Nursemaids' Tunnel is still in use, linking the gardens which remain private. As a result, the public rarely get to see it - but it is accessible during the annual Open Garden Squares weekend. There are other attractions for the London history-lover here, too. 

A pair of plane trees in Park Crescent might not seem terribly exciting at first. After all, the London plane can be found throughout the city thanks to its pollution-resisting properties. These, though, are Waterloo planes, so called because they were planted in 1817 to commemorate Wellington's victory over Napoleon.

Nearby are two small octagonal structures, with another across the road in Park Square. These appear to be small summer houses, with seats set into niches. Why, then, can garden users not go inside? The answer may be guessed from the roundel just visible behind: they are in fact ventilation shafts for Regent's Park underground station.

During Open Garden Squares weekend, I also visited Garden Barge Square (photos on Facebook or Flickr). 


Sunday 9 June 2013

The unification of time


This clock and plaque are an interesting, if enigmatic, reminder of France's complex history of time.  They are attached to an official building on the Avenue du Colonel Rol-Tanguy, a former octroi booth which levied taxes on goods entering Paris; its twin across the road is now the entrance to the catacombs. The plaque (apparently older than the clock above) proclaims this spot to be a 'time centre' for the city's 'unification of time'. In fact, it's just down the road from the real 'time centre', the Paris Observatory.

Like Britain, France found that the coming of the railways made local time more and more of a problem. If each town set its clocks according to the sun, then there were significant time differences as one moved west or east. That hadn't caused difficulty when people moved no faster than horses could carry them, but when trains sped between cities and wanted to follow timetables to do so, those minutes mattered.Initially, railway companies dealt with this by using the time at a single terminus (in France, Paris) for their own purposes while their passengers could continue using local time. 

However, that wasn't wholly satisfactory and pressure was growing for greater standardisation of time. It had happened quite quickly in Britain: initially, railway stations used Greenwich time while local time existed alongside. Nonetheless, more and more people chose to refer to railway time so that by 1855, perhaps 98% of public clocks were showing Greenwich time. It became official time throughout the country in 1880.

Although facing the same practical pressures, France moved rather more slowly. Time was unified in Paris in 1881 but it would take another ten years for this standardisation to be applied across the country. Gradually, more and more major towns took their time from the Paris observatory, a change which became official in 1891.

This change was helped by other new technologies. After all, if you lived on a different longitude to the official source, noon could no longer be established by observing the sun. How then could someone in Bristol or Bordeaux know what London or Paris time should be? Clocks could be transported from the source, but that was neither elegant nor very sensible (although it did work well for Ruth Belville within London.) A better means of transmitting time was needed, and luckily the technology was available - the telegraph, which allowed a time signal to be sent as needed. Alternatively, one could telephone the Paris Observatory and ask for the correct time; by the 1930s, its director Ernest Esclangon was so fed up of the telephone line being tied up in this way that he invented a speaking clock, which came into service in 1933 - listen to it here. Britain would follow this example three years later.

However, the peculiarities of French time had not ended in 1891. In fact, the railways used a third measurement of time to ensure that passengers (potentially confused by the differences between local and station time) didn't miss their trains. The network ran five minutes behind Paris time, so that 'Rouen time' governed when the train actually departed. Thus until 1891, a passenger could be aware of local time, which would be useful for everything except catching a train; Paris time, which the railways apparently ran on; and the slightly later Rouen time at which her train would really leave the station. This final anomaly was only resolved in 1911, when Rouen time was abolished on the railways. That same year, standard time also shifted by a few minutes to align it with the new international standard, Greenwich Mean Time.

Further reading: there's an excellent article in French on the unification of time by Lucien Baillaud.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Supreme Court of the United Kingdom

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United Kingdom - the final court of appeal. It used to be known as the House of Lords (although its role was not to be confused with the legislative function of that House), and the parliamentary link is maintained by a location on Parliament Square. 

Visitors are welcome whenever the building is open, and you can even sit in on a case. Not that there will be exciting witness cross-examinations - go to a Crown Court or the Old Bailey for those - as hearings are focused upon detailed legal argument. It may be worth looking out for an open day, however: while you can't watch the court in action, you have access to more parts of the building and can even take photographs. 

Indeed, it was the building I was focused upon when I visited recently. Rather than having a purpose-built home, the Supreme Court moved into the former Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court. Thus the interior is a mixture of Edwardian and contemporary - and while the newer function may be more grand, the newer alterations to the interior are somewhat understated. They add a committee-room aura to the rather more impressive original court design. More interesting are the elaborately-patterned curtains and engraved glass panels, full of quotations and symbolic allusions to the role of the court.

When the building originally opened in 1913, it was designed to accentuate the majesty of the law by the impressive design of its two courtrooms (one of which is now the library). On the first floor, Middlesex County Council had its council chamber, now the second courtroom. As for the basement, it was once filled with cells but is now an exhibition area and cafe for visitors. 


Sunday 2 June 2013

Ghost signs (89): return to the Loire

When my parents went on holiday to the Loire and Vienne regions, they knew that they needed to look out for more than chateaux! Indeed, they did a good job, finding four ghost signs for me.The first, in Lussac-les-Chateaux, is the ever-popular Dubonnet. This example is notable for two features: first, its very fine colours, and secondly, the fact that someone has built their roof across half of it!

Gennes has a complete example, which has also featured here before. Somebody has whitewashed over it (a not uncommon reaction to these signs once payment has ceased).

Finally, there are two signs from Chateaubriant. The first is for the Hotel Armor, but the word 'charcuterie' is also visible. Was this hotel particularly proud of its cured meats, or are we seeing two separate signs?

The second is something of a challenge. Look carefully, and under that mustard paint is 'Dubo - Dubon - Dubonnet'. The sign painted over the top is less easy to make out, although it seems to include the words 'un ... betail' (livestock) and 'benefites'.

Below this is another palimpsest sign, with a blue background, which has been liberally covered in white paint. Nonetheless, two brand names can be made out: our friend Dubonnet again, and Lincoln - not the motor company but the household appliance manufacturers.