Wednesday 28 August 2013

Surviving the Charge of the Light Brigade

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade helped make this Crimean War incident one of the most famous of military blunders. On 25 October 1854, at Balaklava, Lord Cardigan led his light cavalry against Russian infantry - but due to a miscommunication, they entered the wrong valley and were mown down by Russian guns.

Although the majority of the 'six hundred' were killed, wounded or taken prisoner, there were survivors. Trumpeter Landfried, who had sounded the charge, was still alive to play it again for an Edison recording in 1890. That same year, Kipling wrote a poem, The Last of the Light Brigade, evoking the poverty in which many of these ex-servicemen were living.

One of the longer-lived survivors is buried in the churchyard of St Deiniol's, Hawarden in North Wales. Thomas Ryan, 'a native of Kilkenny and late Troop Sergeant Major', 'took his final discharge on October 20th 1908, aged 88 years'. He had led a full and eventful life both before and after 1854.

Just a year before his death, he told his life story in a church magazine. In some ways, it is a conventional Victorian narrative: a young man, fond of drinking, swearing and sin, sees the error of his ways and is reformed. However, the life he led before his conversion to Christianity and abstinence from alcohol was not at all conventional, even before he took part in the Charge. He describes entering the service of Lord Ormonde of Kilkenny Castle, before becoming valet to a nobleman who left him a small fortune. Ryan spent all this in a few years in London, and had no choice but to enlist - a chain of events which led him to the Crimea. As his gravestone records, he would be present at Alma, Inkermann and Sevastapol as well as Balaklava. After his discharge from the army, he continued his dissolute ways until a fellow workman persuaded him to join the Good Templars, a freemansonry-style temperance organisation.

Ryan was living with his son and daughter-in-law in Shotton. In 1908, he died when he fell into the river Dee and drowned. His grave was restored in 2001.

Sunday 25 August 2013

Hawksmoor at Somerset House

There is a mystique around Nicholas Hawksmoor, Wren's assistant and architect of churches including St Mary Woolnoth and Christ Church Spitalfields. The concrete reality of the churches has perhaps been overshadowed by their enigmatic reimagining in the work of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. They are thus well-known, but - according to the exhibition Methodical Imaginings - insufficiently visually documented. 

This exhibition seeks to address that lack with a combination of specially-commissioned photographs and resin models of Hawksmoor's churches. Apparently simple and even sparse, the exhibition draws visitors in and focuses their attention where it belongs: not on mysterious rites and ley-lines but upon the buildings themselves. 

The exhibition has just over a week to run, and if you are near Somerset House, I would recommend a visit. There is more information here; London Historians has also visited.

Friday 23 August 2013

Ghost signs (97): Margate ghosts

Right outside the railway station is a good, if faded, sign for Dominion Motor Spirits.  Like many signs, it partly owes its survival to the newer advertising which replaced it: a few years ago, one side was protected by a hoarding.

Dominion was founded in London in the 1920s, supplying petrol products for aeroplanes and racing cars as well as the domestic motorist. A series of company take-overs soon followed, and it became part of Shell-Mex and BP in 1934. However, the brand survived until 1957 and was marketed as a premium product. While Dominion Motor Spirits may have long disappeared, the garage mentioned in the advertisement - Albert Garage - is still very much in business at this location.

Walking along Marine Parade and into the town centre, I saw several hotel signs. The Beresford Boarding House may have left a less colourful, more mundane reminder of its past than Dominion, but it still tells part of the resort's story. 

It peers above the fence for Dreamland's car park. This amusement park was once at the metaphorical as well as literal heart of the town, but closed some years ago. Happily, it was saved from developers and is to be reopened next year, featuring historical rides and attractions. With its Grade II-listed cinema, rollercoaster and menagerie cages, it is ideally suited to conveying the heritage of British seaside amusements. For the moment, however, its prominent signs make a forlorn reminder of the past. 

Just off the Market Place in the Old Town is another hotel sign, for the Central Temperance Commercial Hotel. It's a reminder of the temperance movement and its alternatives to licensed premises - many of which enjoyed success.  Indeed, this hotel points out that it was 'Estab[lished] 20 years'.

Nearby, the Thanet Times and Isle of Thanet Gazette promise that they are 'best' for classified adverts, Thanet sport and all the weekend news. In fact, the Thanet Times published its final edition last year although the Isle of Thanet Gazette continues to cover local news.

You might also look for a more literary kind of ghost. In the Nayland Rock Shelter, T S Eliot looked out over the seafront as he wrote part of The Waste Land

On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.

Thursday 22 August 2013

East Greenwich Pleasaunce

Tucked away behind Woolwich Road, the East Greenwich Pleasaunce is some way off the Greenwich tourist trail. However, it is not only a popular local park but one full of history. 

The Royal Hospital, Greenwich (now the Old Royal Naval College) faced a problem in the 1840s: its burial ground was full. Despite the Hospital's name, that didn't suggest poor medical care. The Hospital provided a home for several thousand Navy pensioners who were either elderly or infirm, so most of its residents would expect to die there.  They were buried around Devonport House, which was then the infirmary.

After spending quite a while searching for a suitable new location, the Admiralty bought this land in 1857. Within a few decades, the original burials in central Greenwich were threatened by a railway tunnel, so a further 3,000 burials were moved here. More were relocated in 1925 to enable a nurses' home to be built. There are other maritime burials too, including Greenwich staff and naval First World War graves. 

One which does not appear to fit here is the grave of Anthony Francis Oscar Sampayo, Minister Plenipotentiary (ie ambassador) of France, who died on 4 August 1862. However, the Standard death announcement discloses the reason for his presence: he died 'at the residence of his uncle, Sir W. Cunningham Dalyell, Bart., Royal Navy, Greenwich Hospital'. Cunningham Dalyell was in fact commander of the hospital, and was married to Maria Sampayo. Her brother (presumably Anthony's father) had been French Minister at the German state of Hesse Cassel, a post held by Anthony at the time of his death.

A year after the 1925 reinterments, the cemetery was sold to the Borough of Greenwich and became a park. Today, it has a cafe and play areas; visitors stroll or play among the gravestones. 

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Ghost signs (96): Westcombe Hill

It was as if Westcombe Hill realised that walking up it in drizzling rain wasn't much fun. To motivate me, it offered not one but two ghost signs on the way. 

The first is a rather dashing, if very faded, advertisement for one P or J Moore. Some of the goods offered can be deciphered: underclothing, blouses, hosiery, calicoes, curtains, flanelettes. There's also some very swirly lettering in the top-right corner; I can't decipher it, although the initials 'C M' are there. 

Further up the hill is a smaller, plainer but equally faded sign. It advertised C Holmes, Plumber & Decorator, who promised 'alterations, repairs, sanitary work of every description, estimates free'. His telephone number is not fully legible but ends 'Green 1187.'

There's even a rather fun little flourish for the sanitary work, in contrast to the rest of the rather severe text. All in all, cheering enough to speed me on my way through the rain!

Sunday 18 August 2013

Compton, artists' village

G F Watts, one of the most famous of Victorian artists, was also the founder of the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice at Postman's Park. Much of his art can now be found in a gallery bearing his name in Compton, Surrey. He built it with his wife Mary Seton Fraser Tytler, a fellow artist who worked in pottery and who would create another extraordinary building a short walk away.

Watts was a Londoner, born in Marylebone in 1817 and living mainly in the city thereafter, although he did travel to Italy and have a home on the Isle of Wight. He spent most of his life unmarried - there was a brief and disastrous marriage to Ellen Terry, when he was in his forties and she was sixteen, which lasted less than a year. However, when he was 69 he married Mary, and this time the partnership would last for the rest of his life. Together, they conceived the gallery, which opened in 1904; he died later that year.

The Arts and Crafts building was designed by architect Christopher Hatton Turnor. Inside is a substantial selection of Watts' paintings, and in the course of his long career - ending only with his death aged 87 - he covered a huge variety of styles and subjects. There are portraits of many famous contemporaries, allegories such as the famous Hope, landscapes, and more. The sculpture gallery is dominated by two huge works - original plaster models of Lord Tennyson with his dog, and of Physical Energy, a horse and rider who can be seen in Kensington Gardens (casts also went to Cape Town and Harare).

Another room gives a more personal view of Watts, with a timeline of his life; personal items include letters and the small cap he wore in his old age. The gallery also hosts exhibitions, which explore Watts' wider artistic context. Until 3 November 2013, the exhibition showcases Frank Holl, who is undeservedly little-known today thanks to changing fashions and his early death.

There is little direct reference to the Watts Memorial at the gallery, but outside is a rather nice echo. Plaques marking donations to the recent restoration of the gallery are in the style of their Postman's Park counterparts. One is, very aptly, dedicated to postmen!

However, the Watts household did not confine their interest in Compton to their own home and gallery. Mary in particular was interested in building an artistic community here: in London, she had already run clay-modelling classes in Whitechapel for boot-black boys. In 1895, she began terracotta classes for Compton's villagers to make decorations for a new mortuary chapel in the village cemetery; more than seventy became involved. 

The chapel is an extraordinary building, its interior and exterior decoration very much Mary's creation. She brought together a range of influences, from the Egyptian to the Celtic to Art Nouveau. The exterior uses local clay, found in the grounds of her home Limnerslease, and was finished in 1898. The most talented of those who had worked on the exterior were invited to continue working on the gesso interior which was only completed in 1904 - just in time for George's ashes to be laid inside in a gesso casket.

The pottery became a company, Compton Pottery. Although Mary died in 1938, it would continue producing her designs until 1956.

Outside, the cemetery's graves are of varied and often beautiful designs. Among the most famous occupants are the Huxley family; there is a mystery about the inscription on Aldous Huxley's grave.

I visited the gallery and chapel with London Historians, which organises an excellent programme of events and social evenings. It also offers a monthly newsletter and various member discounts and competitions.

Thursday 15 August 2013

The guiding virtues of Queen Alexandra

Outside St James's Palace in the wall of Marlborough House is a sculpted scene showing four female figures, one a child. Its significance is not immediately apparent, but partly explained by the words on its plinth: Faith, hope, love. The guiding virtues of Queen Alexandra.

This is the Queen Alexandra Monument, sculpted by Sir Alfred Gilbert to commemorate Alexandra of Denmark, wife of Edward VII. It reflects the popularity she enjoyed in her own right: when she became Princess of Wales in 1863, Queen Victoria was already in mourning and Alexandra attended many functions in her place. Her public role continued throughout her time as Queen (1901-1910) and, after Edward's death, Queen Mother. She established an annual Alexandra Rose Day when fabric roses were sold to support hospitals, and her monument was unveiled on Alexandra Rose Day 1932, seven years after her death. 

Alexandra herself is not portrayed in the monument. Instead, Love sits on a throne with Faith and Hope at her sides and a young girl held in front of her. (There are also several rather nice lamps incorporated in the design.) Richard Dorment argues that the composition, and the crucifixion-like pose, add both a religious element and a mourning theme. The child figure itself alludes both to Alexandra's charitable work for children and to the young women who would inherit these virtues.

Gilbert is better-known for another London sculpture, 'Eros' in Piccadilly Circus. It is also a memorial piece, commemorating Lord Shaftesbury whose philanthropic campaigns led to improvements in working conditions and the abolition of employing boys as chimney sweeps. 

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Bristol Balloon Fiesta


Every year for the last 35 years, hot air balloons have floated above Bristol for its Balloon Fiesta, the largest in Europe. Half a million people visited the Ashton Court launch site this year - although we watched a 6am launch, one of the quieter times! Here is a selection of images. 

Sunday 11 August 2013

Two-for-one in Bexley

Among the hidden jewels of South East London is this stately home.

And this one.

In fact, they're really a single house: Hall Place in Bexley. This lovely Tudor mansion, built in 1537, was originally the home of Sir John Champneys, a former Lord Mayor of London and a wealthy merchant. Centred around the great hall, it's a striking building in a chequerboard pattern of flint and rubble. Some of the stone was taken from Lesnes Abbey, which had been closed and demolished a few years earlier.

A century later the Champneys family sold the property to another merchant, Robert Austen. He decided that his new home was too small, and added a brick extension including a courtyard and tower. Thus the house gained its distinctive appearance, with two totally unmatched halves.

The eighteenth century saw the house come into the hands of Sir Francis Dashwood, best known for his involvement in the Hellfire Club at Medmenham Abbey. He and his family made further improvements, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the house was let to tenants including a Victorian boarding school. It found a new use in 1944, when the US Army Signal Corps arrived and filled the house with radio receivers; today, it is owned by Bexley Council and opened to the public by Bexley Heritage Trust.

The interior offers a mixture of styles and periods which somehow form a coherent whole. Huge windows, creaking floorboards and fine decoration make it a cheerful, welcoming environment in which to enjoy half a millennium of history. 

The house is set in parkland, and its immediate surroundings are formal gardens. Among their features are a row of topiary heraldic animals: the Queen's Beasts, created for her coronation. The softer lines of the plants give them a very appealing, distinctly cartoon-character appearance! (A stone version, only slightly less cartoonish, can be seen at Kew Gardens.)

Practical information: visitor information including opening times is here. There is an admission charge for the house; entrance to the gardens is free.

Thursday 8 August 2013

Picture quiz

Where would you find this topiary mole? Leave your answer as a comment.

(Clue: it's not really a mole!)

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Ghost signs (95): George Mence Smith

In Oxford Mews, near Bexley Station, is a large but faded ghost sign headed 'George Mence Smith'. Fading and over-painting have made the rest tricky to read: there are at least two separate signs here. Distinguishable words include 'Italian warehouse ... a large assortment of' Tin Iron ... Bath & Carriage ... &c. &c. &c.' I rather like that final flourish: it nicely conveys a huge assortment of other goods awaiting the customer.

George Mence Smith was an oil and colour merchant who lived at Bexleyheath from 1863. He owned seventy hardware stores selling everything from oil to wallpaper to cutlery, a business which would fit well with the assorted words decipherable here. His shops were found throughout South London, including on Deptford Broadway, as well as on Tottenham Court Road, throughout the South East of England, and around Northampton. Although Mence Smith died in 1896, the shops continued to bear his name until 1944 when they were taken over by Timothy White's.

'Italian warehouse' was painted on the side of his shop in Bexleyheath, too. An eighteenth-century establishment described in this way sold a huge assortment of Italian luxury goods including silks, violin strings and wine, but I'm not sure whether it would have had the same connotations in late-Victorian Bexley. A photograph from Edwardian Hove has the name on a general hardware store which seems to be of a similar type to Mence Smith's.

Mence Smith was also the inventor of the Fearnought Safety Lamp. Lamps were a potential source of danger, since they were liable to catch fire if knocked over. However, advertising for the Fearnought claimed its 'safety element ... is a specially-constructed wick-tube, which possessed the property of preventing the oil from ascending or the heated air descending in the event  of the lamp being upset either hastily or slowly. Moreover, immediately the lamp gets overturned the flame is extinguished'. This must have been a real boon to Victorian homes. 

Sunday 4 August 2013

Books in Chains

When books were truly expensive, libraries were so careful to prevent theft that they chained each volume to its shelf. Far from borrowing it to take home, a reader couldn't even move it from that section of the room, so would consult it in situ. Nonetheless, as the alternative had been to keep books carefully locked away altogether or require valuable security from borrowers, a chained library significantly improved accessibility.

Innovations in printing and the growth of literacy made books far cheaper, and they were mostly liberated from their chains in the eighteenth century. Probably the best-known surviving example is at Hereford Cathedral. While the City of London's Guildhall Library is not in chains, among its treasures is a book with  chain still attached.

However, the book was never chained to the shelves of Guildhall Library, which has had a surprisingly turbulent history. It was founded early in the fifteenth century thanks to a bequest from wealthy merchant Richard Whittington - the famous Lord Mayor, better known to us as Dick Whittington. Unfortunately, in 1549 the books all got 'borrowed' by the wealthy and powerful Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector. He took them away by the cartload to furnish his new home on Strand, Somerset House. They were not returned. Only one of the books is now in the collection - and the City of London had to buy it from a dealer in 1926. 

The Corporation of the City of London seem to have been quite happy without a library for several centuries, until a new one was opened in 1828. It began with 1,700 books but has grown enormously since then - although 25,000 books were lost in the Second World War - and moved several times.  Although the emphasis of the collection is naturally upon the City of London and its history, there is much more to be found here: after all , the history of London takes in everything from Shakespeare to the stock exchange, maritime history and the diverse activities of its livery companies. In particular, Guildhall Library has an outstanding collection of cookery, food and drink books. It has also acquired rare items including this chained book and, famously, a Shakespeare first folio.

It is not limited to books, either. Among the most fascinating of its treasures are ephemera - printed items designed to be read and then thrown away. The advertisements for eighteenth-century lotteries are not only pieces of social history, but also significant examples of early two- and three-colour printing, while a collection of broadsheets depicting nineteenth-century suicides from the Monument are among the rarest items the library possesses. 

Guildhall Library is open to the public from Monday to Saturday, 9.30am to 5pm. It is a reference library (no borrowing!) and also hosts regular exhibitions and events (including, recently, its first open day).

Thursday 1 August 2013

Top turrets!

When the City of London very kindly invited me on a tour, a highlight was the opportunity to go into an area of Tower Bridge not open to the public: one of its turrets. From the upper walkways, now home to the Tower Bridge exhibition, we took a little spiral staircase into one of the two turrets topping the bridge's towers. This room not only has windows, but also small balconies offering views from each side. It's not the best place to be if you're not comfortable with heights, but the scenery makes for an impressive distraction!




It was amazing to be in this part of the bridge, and having access to the views unimpeded by glass was obviously a photographer's dream. However, the exhibition itself is also very much worth a visit. You travel by lift from road level to the high-level walkways, which were originally provided for pedestrians to cross the bridge while it was open, but didn't prove popular with the general public. They did prove more popular with prostitutes and their clients, and were soon closed! Now reopened and somewhat more salubrious, they host changing exhibitions and their windows offer a wonderful perspective over the river and across the city. Then there's a visit to the engine room, to see the original Victorian steam engines which once powered the bridge lifts.

The bridge is one of my very favourite London places, so I don't need much of an excuse to revisit the exhibition - but I'll soon have a very good reason indeed. Next year, there will be a brand-new view for all visitors: a section of glass flooring will be inserted into the walkways. It will offer not only a new angle on the bridge and its surroundings but also the exciting possibility of watching a bridge lift from above.