Sunday 29 September 2013

New light on the Old Royal Naval College

Wren's masterpiece in Greenwich, the Old Royal Naval College, was still the Royal Hospital for Seamen in 1850 when its formal landscaping scheme was created. Its architect, Philip Hardwick, laid out the formal lawns and fountains - all lit by lanterns. 


Originally gas, the lights now run on electricity. However, that is not the only change they have undergone over the years. Time has taken its toll, and the lanterns (which had been crafted locally by ships' lantern-makers) are not easy to maintain. Each is individual, so there are no standard parts - a particular challenge when it comes to replacing broken glass, as every curved piece is different. For years, damaged panels were replaced with perspex which can bend and flex to fit. The sails topping many lanterns had lost their lustre, and some were damaged.

Unrestored lantern (with restored lantern behind)
However, the lamps are now undergoing a restoration. Seven of the 72 have been completed so far, and they look extremely fine with their hand-made glass and gilded tops. Seeing them at their best like this reminds us that they do more than light the surroundings: they also enhance them, not least by reflecting the naval connections of this place. 

My favourite is probably this lantern, whose bracket has tiny cannon and cannonballs, anchors, and Poseidon's trident. It is shedding light not only on the pathway, but also on the ORNC's past purpose! 

Thursday 26 September 2013

Cathedral builders in Crystal Palace

Throughout Open House Weekend, groups of visitors put on hard hats and listened to safety briefings before descending a rather worn flight of stairs to the Crystal Palace Subway. Why, though, were they so eager to see a subway under a main road? 

One glimpse of what lay behind the arches visible at ground level explains the enthusiasm. This is not some concrete tunnel with questionable puddles and flickering fluorescent lights, but a joyous piece of Victoriana, largely hidden from public view for the last half century.

Added to that beauty, the subway is one of the few surviving elements of Crystal Palace itself, destroyed by fire in 1936. When the palace had moved here from Hyde Park in 1854, the original railway station proved inadequate for the stream of visitors. A second, known as the high-level station, opened in 1862. It was the terminus of a line from Peckham Rye, but the railway company had hopes of extending the line in future, so this station was something of a showpiece. 

As it was across a busy road from the Palace, the railway provided this fabulous subway for first-class passengers to cross over in comfort. It took them directly from the station booking halls to the Palace's centre transept. Byzantine in inspiration and built by Italian cathedral craftsmen, the subway was as much an added element of glamour as a functional space. The black circles in its ceiling mark where chandeliers originally hung, which must have added even more sparkle to an already arresting space. 

Sadly, the station was not as successful as its investors had hoped. Visitor numbers to the Palace were in decline, and no further extension to the line was ever built. Use dropped even further after the disastrous fire, and in 1944 the station was closed. One suspects that in this period, the subway was busier when in use as an air raid shelter than when welcoming passengers. Although the line did reopen again in 1946, it would close permanently in 1954. Seven years later, the Victorian station was demolished - but the subway survived.

Most of the time, it is behind locked gates. However, there is a campaign to reopen the subway to the public once more - an aim definitely worth supporting. 

Sunday 22 September 2013

The Oak Room

September 2013 sees the 400th anniversary of the New River, Hugh Myddelton's great feat of engineering which brought fresh Hertfordshire water into London (at least for those who could afford it). The New River Company was half-owned by the King, with plenty of prominent men among its 'adventurer' investors; their investment proved highly lucrative, so it is unsurprising that the company board room was rather grand. 

What is perhaps more surprising is that the seventeenth-century board room, known as the Oak Room, still exists today. The building which originally housed it is long gone, but this beautiful oak interior was moved into the Metropolitan Water Board's new head office. Although that building has itself been converted into flats, the Oak Room endures - and was accessible to the public during Open House Weekend. 

The carving is believed to be the work of Grinling Gibbons. As well as the grand heraldic panel in the centre, there are details on the theme of water: fish, crabs and lobsters, and fishing equipment. 

As the boardroom was completed at the end of the century, its ceiling depicts William of Orange rather than the monarch whose original investment was crucial to the scheme's success, James I.  Around the painting, by Henry Cooke, are ornate plaster scenes including idyllic villages, swans - and the Myddelton coat of arms.

Originally, the board room was above the River's cistern with a reservoir just outside its windows. These are gone today - the River continues to provide a significant amount of London's water, but terminates short of Rosebery Avenue and New River Head. 

For more celebrations of the New River's birthday, see this list of events from Londonist.

Friday 20 September 2013

Antique jewellery

Pens, pissoirs - Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter has more to offer than jewellery alone. However, it would be a shame to miss out on the area's most famous product. You don't even need to budget for the glittering items in the shop windows: there's plenty of sparkle at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter.

The exhibitions of contemporary silver and goldsmithing are impressive, but the real treat comes when you take a guided tour. Walking past the ticket desk and up the stairs, you immediately step back in time.

In 1981, the owners of Smith & Pepper were ready to retire. They were unable to sell the business as a going concern - it was very old-fashioned even then, and the recession was at its height - so they took the remaining precious metals out of the safe, locked the doors, and left the premises. Nearly a decade later, the council opened those doors again - and found a time capsule. Papers were still on desks, tools on workbenches, overalls hung ready for use on their hooks. 

All around is evidence of one of the owners' main concerns: making sure that the precious raw materials were carefully conserved. Gold was carefully weighed in and weighed out each day, the weights recorded by each worker's name in a ledge. Turn-ups on trousers were prohibited, dust was carefully swept from benches and floors and sent to a furnace, even the gold dust flowing down the washbasin drains was captured. 

The machines and tools look ready to spring to life again - and they do. Our tour guide demonstrated the work once done here: metal was stamped, cut and drilled; a pipe used to keep the soldering flame sufficiently hot. Past and present briefly met, and a little extra meaning was added to the jewellery on sale in the surrounding shops. 



Wednesday 18 September 2013

Writing history

Birmingham dominated the world in this trade, with over a hundred factories at its height. Its centre was the Jewellery Quarter - but I'm not talking about gems and trinkets. It's less well-remembered that 75% of the world's pen nibs were once made in this city. After all, most companies closed within a few years of cheap Biros becoming available, and today fountain pens are specialist items.

However, one place which does remember this industry very well - and brings that past brilliantly to life - is the Pen Museum. It has literally millions of nibs, in boxes, on trade cards, and shaped into elaborate displays for the great Victorian exhibitions. There are also related items including blotters, inkwells and typewriters. That may sound rather niche, but in reality it's hard not to be enthralled by the exhibits. After all, they tell us so much about everything from how we wrote before Biros, to working life in Birmingham's factories, to the marketing techniques that created hundreds of brands out of this one item.

The industry democratised writing: quill pens and the first, hand-made steel nibs were expensive. Mechanising production allowed them to be sold cheaply, so that most people could afford a pen. The sheer volume of production and sales, though, made some manufacturers very wealthy. 

One of the great figures of the industry was Joseph Gillott, who established his company in the 1830s, quickly moved to purpose-built Victoria Works, and made a fortune. So rich that he walked around with gemstones in his pockets and was a patron of artists including Constable and Turner, he was also rather canny. On the morning of his wedding, he got up early and made a gross of pens. They were not wedding favours - he sold them to the guests!

By contrast, another major manufacturer, Sir Josiah Mason gave much of his fortune away. He founded almshouses, a huge orphanage, and a college of science which would later become the University of Birmingham. While still Mason's College, it would count future prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain among its students.

W E Wiley catered to an up-market clientele, with gold-plated nibs and luxury pen-holders. Their factory, across the road from the Victoria Works, was known as the Albert Works. They too were clever about making money: surplus steam produced by the manufacturing process was used to heat Turkish baths on the top floor. (These were a profit-making business rather than a workers' perk.) It is that building, now known as the Argent Centre, which houses the Pen Museum.

Most exciting are the machines - because visitors can actually use these to make their own nib. First, the shape is stamped out of a strip of steel. I was quite pleased with my solitary attempt, but the blankers, women who operated this machine, were expected to cut over 18,000 nibs a day.

A hole is punched - this will stop the split added later from travelling too far up the nib.

Next, the brand name and size are stamped onto the nib. 

Now the nib is formed into its distinctive shape, or 'raised'. (It would have been annealed first, to soften the metal by first heating it and then allowing it to cool slowly.)

At this point, the nib needs to go through quite a process to harden it again: heating in a furnace or muffler, cooling in oil, boiling in soda water, heating over a charcoal fire, cleaning in sulphuric acid and scouring. Finally, it would be ground. All that would obviously be impossible to fit into a museum visit so, Blue Peter-like, we now took nibs which had already been through the procedure and completed the final stage. The nib was split, and ready to use. 

Amazingly, the museum offers all this, and other activities including many for children, for free (although donations are very welcome). It's definitely worth taking a break from the gold and diamonds for a different kind of gem in the Jewellery Quarter. 

Sunday 15 September 2013

Birmingham's Temple of Relief

Just outside the Jewellery Quarter station in Birmingham is a rather special piece of street furniture, in Victorian cast iron. Known as the 'temple of relief', it is a public toilet which has stood here since 1883 and is Grade-II listed. 

The facilities are now closed. A look through the railings which keep out passers-by shows that they were divided into two sections - but these hold urinals not cubicles. It's an interesting choice in an area where many women worked, and suggests that public order rather than users' convenience alone was a significant motivation for placing them here.

Like so much excellent and ambitious Victorian cast iron, this is the work of Walter Macfarlane & Co, made in their Saracen Foundry in Glasgow. There were a number of similar conveniences in Birmingham, several of which survive. Indeed, it seems that one is still in use (although another has been lost!).

Thursday 12 September 2013

Ghost signs (98): Bridgwater baker

Not only are my parents becoming adept at spotting ghost signs; my brother-in-law is also contributing finds! This one, above a small shop in Bridgwater, is a reminder that it used to be a bakery. An earlier sign for the same baker, W H Prew, is just visible underneath. It, too, said 'baker' - but went on to add '& grocer'. Perhaps growing success with his baked products allowed Mr Prew to specialise. 

A probate announcement in the January 1956 London Gazette describes William Henry Prew as a 'baker and grocer (retired)' who had died the previous October. Records show that he was born in about 1875. His father was a file maker in a brick yard, but by 1891 William was assistant to his uncle, a baker living in the same road. Ten years later, he was living with his parents and working as a 'journeyman bread baker', but in 1901 he was a baker in his own right, married with a daughter. By 1935 he is listed in Kelly's Directory at this address. The sign, then, is at least sixty years old but may well date back even further: a tangible reminder of a working life spent baking in this Somerset town. 

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Portwey, steam tug

Among the guests at this year's Thames Festival is Portwey, Britain's last surviving twin-screw, coal-powered steam tug. She usually lives in South Quay at West India Docks, but has taken up residence in St Katharine Docks for the duration of the festival and is welcoming visitors on board. 

In 1927, Harland and Wolff built Portwey on the banks of the Clyde, but she moved immediately to the other end of the British Isles. Her name, a compression of Portland and Weymouth, describes both her destination and the company for whom she was built: the Portland and Weymouth Coaling Company. They used the Portwey to supply coal to steamers as well as to assist or salvage ships when needed.

Until World War II, the Portwey worked along the south coast. During the war, the US Army used her to tow damaged craft. Her final job was at Falmouth Dock, and in 1967 she was saved from the scrapyard and restored. She is now owned by the Steam Tug Portwey Trust. 

Running the Portwey's engines involves much shovelling of coal. Not only do the boilers have to be fed, but the coal has to be loaded onto the boat and then moved around to ensure it stays balanced - otherwise the tug will become unstable.

There's also plenty of brass to polish, both above and below decks, and ropes to care for. Since the tug also needs regular refitting, it's not cheap to keep her running. The Trust is looking for funding and volunteers, if you'd like to help!

The Portwey in action, Thames Festival 2009