Thursday 31 October 2013

A Roman Eagle in London

Minories, a City of London street leading from Tower Hill to Aldgate, takes its name from the Minoresses  (nuns) who had an abbey here in the middle ages. However, its history goes back much farther than that, as evidenced by an extraordinary recent find. Excavating the site of a new hotel development, Museum of London Archaeology discovered an eagle and snake on the final day of the dig. 

The Roman sculpture was carved in the first century, from Cotswold limestone. It has survived in remarkably fine condition, intact except for a broken wing and with details still sharply delineated. Indeed, it's the best example we have of Romano-British carving.

The eagle seems to have adorned the mausoleum of a prominent Londoner, functioning as a symbol of power and good. As for the serpent, it represents evil - and has a rather unlikely set of teeth. Archaeologist Michael Marshall told the Guardian that 'We did have a go at identifying the species of snake when we had some zoologists in – but they just said 'it's a snake'.' 

When the mausoleum was demolished, its centrepiece was thrown into a muddy ditch where it lay for the next nineteen centuries. Discovered just a month ago, the sculpture is now on display in the Museum of London's Roman galleries for the next six months. Go, and meet its haughty gaze!

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Ghost signs (102): Marshall's Lysol

On my way to the ghost signs walk around Stoke Newington, I jumped off the bus early to photograph this advertisement for Marshall's Lysol. It reads 'Ask for Marshall's chemists brand Lysol. [It's the?] genuine'. Unfortunately, the sign is partly obscured by a vinyl advertisement for a minicab company - itself somewhat vintage, judging by the '01' telephone code.

Lysol is a brand of disinfectant, and Marshall's seem to have marketed under the name 'Marshol' as well as Marshall's Lysol. The Lysol brand was founded in Germany in 1889 but soon gained worldwide popularity. It was so toxic that drinking Lysol was a not-uncommon method of committing suicide - London poet Charlotte Mew killed herself this way in 1928 - and was advertised in the United States as a (dangerous, ineffective) method of birth control. Lysol remains a major brand in the USA, now owned by Reckitt Benckiser. 

Friday 25 October 2013

Ghost signs (101): the walk

Wonderful as photographs of ghost signs are, there's nothing like seeing them in real life. One of the best places to do so is Stoke Newington, which has London's finest concentration of signs, and the best guide is Sam Roberts, founder of the ghost signs archive. Happily, he is now offering guided tours of the area's ghost signs, and I was fortunate to try one last week. 

The walk doesn't only take you to some wonderful signs. It also introduces you to all the key features: palimpsests, deciphering wording, famous brands of the past, and the sadness of lost signs. The fascinating hour-and-a-half walk ends, as the best walks do, in the pub. Even a sudden rainstorm hadn't dampened our enthusiasm!

I'd definitely recommend this exploration of ghost signs in their natural habitat. There are walks coming up in the next three months - a perfect seasonal present! 

Thursday 17 October 2013

Ghost signs (100): Bermondsey leather

A century ago, Bermondsey was full of industry - and much of that industry was tanning. Skins were cleaned, with the wool going to felters for hat-making and the flesh turned into gelatine, some used by nearby Crosse and Blackwell. The cleaned hides were then tanned - a noisome process involving dog poo and human urine, among other delights. I doubt many within smelling range of the area are sorry that those tanneries are gone. 

They've left some lovely reminders behind, though. The London Leather, Hide & Wool Exchange, built in 1878, was more of a social club than a trading floor. Aptly, it's now a pub, but the tannery connection is visible not only in the carved name over the main door but also in five roundels depicting (idealised) scenes from the tanning process. 


Next to the red brick and sculpted decoration of the Exchange is the larger, but more restrained, Leather Market in yellow London stock brick. Now studios and offices, this was where the hides and skins were traded when the tanneries thrived. 

Beside the door is a small ghost sign, another reminder of the industry. It reads 'M Emanuel Ltd, Leather & leather pieces, Office ground floor, Leather Market'.

Describing the market in 1879, Charles Dickens Jr failed to conjure up much enthusiasm. Instead, he was preoccupied by the pungent odours all around:
The neighbourhood in which it stands is devoted entirely to thinners and tanners, and the air reeks with evil smells. The population is peculiar, and it is a sight at twelve o’clock to see the men pouring out from all the works. Their clothes are marked with many stains; their trousers are dis-coloured by tan; some have apron and gaiters of raw hide; an about them all seems to hang a scent of blood. The market itself stands in the centre of a quiet block of buildings on the left hand side of Weston-street, the entry being through a gateway. Through this a hundred yards down, a square is reached. Most of it is roofed, but there is an open space lathe centre. Under the roofing are huge piles of fresh hides and sheep-skins. There is no noise or bustle, and but few people about. There are no retail purchasers, the sales being almost entirely made to the great tanners in the neighbourhood. The warehouses round are all full of tanned hides; the yards behind the high walls are all tanneries, with their tens of thousands of hides soaking in the pits. Any visitor going down to look at the Bermondsey hide-market should, if possible, procure beforehand an order to visit one of the great tanning establishments. Unless this be done the visit to the market itself will hardly repay the trouble of the journey, or make up for the unpleasantness of the compound of horrible smells which pervade the whole neighbourhood.

I discovered the Leather Market and Exchange on a Victorian Society guided walk - one of their many excellent events - led by the extremely knowledgeable Stephen Humphrey

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Ghost signs (99): paper

This sign is on Bermondsey Street, SE1, and reads 'Estabd 1857 - Thomson Bros Ltd - PAPER'. It's not the most decorative example, and the fitting of the bold word 'paper' into this narrow bit of side wall is a little awkward. However, even now it's scuffed and faded, it has the virtues of being clear and bold. 

The firm proves rather elusive: in the 1902 Post Office Directory, for example, there is no Thomson Bros on Bermondsey Street although there is a listing for 'Thomson Brothers Limited, wholesale stationers' at 49 Knightrider Street, EC. It may be that one of the tanneries here was also an agent for Thomson Bros; the common name also doesn't help in tracking them down. If anyone has more information, I would love to know!

Sunday 13 October 2013

Terracotta and teapots in Cock Lane

This gorgeous tile and terracotta facade marks the former London showroom of steam engineer John James Royle. The premises in Cock Lane, Smithfield promoted his products made in Manchester: radiators, water heaters, industrial evaporators and the like. Indeed, Royle was such a prolific inventor that he took over a firm of  patent attorneys in Manchester, now known as Wilson Gunn.

Royle's main business may have been commercial and industrial, but he is best remembered for a household innovation. It solved a problem facing many Victorian families: in a large household, a large teapot made sense - until you tried to lift it. His solution was the self-pouring teapot, initially produced as a novelty promotional item but later manufactured in thousands. It worked by a pumping mechanism: the lid, lifted and lowered, acted as a piston to increase pressure inside the pot, forcing tea out through its down-curved spout into the waiting cups below. The only disadvantage: the steam hole in the lid had to be covered with a finger, making pouring an uncomfortable if not dangerous experience.

Friday 11 October 2013

A public-private Parisian home

When Édouard André, son of a wealthy banking family, married renowned artist Nélie Jacquemart in 1881, they shared both a passion for collecting art and the means to indulge it. Just a few years earlier, André had built a grand mansion on the Boulevard Haussmann in central Paris to house his growing collection. 

The couple dedicated themselves to adding to that collection, with annual visits to Italy as well as journeys to Russia, Egypt, Lebanon, Istanbul and Greece. Their absences provided opportunities for building work on the mansion, to accommodate its ever-increasing contents! In fact, during the 1880s, their annual budget for acquisitions was significantly greater than that of the national museums.

After André's death, Jacquemart stayed true to the couple's plans for their home. She continued to travel and add to the collection, and on her death bequeathed both mansion and collection to the Institut de France in order for it to be opened as a museum.

The art in the Musée Jacquemart-André is, unsurprisingly, lovely. However, the museum owes its particular charm to the surroundings: one feels that many of the rooms could still be occupied by the couple. A visit thus feels more like an exploration behind the grand closed doors of a privileged nineteenth-century household than simple gallery-going. 

This is true to the purpose of the mansion, which was very much intended to be a space to entertain and to display art, as well a family home. From reports of its 1876 opening in Parisian periodicals, to its later life as a museum, it has always offered the public a glimpse of a world of wealth and privilege beyond the imaginings of most people.


Tuesday 8 October 2013

Brutal Barbican

The Barbican is a large complex in the City of London which is home to an arts centre, schools, the Museum of London, and about four thousand residents. It is also well-known for its brutalist architecture and rather disorientating high-walk geography. An architectural tour offers more insight into this development, now Grade II-listed but still disliked by many Londoners. 

 The City of London suffered badly in the Blitz, and Cripplegate ward was particularly badly damaged. Among the historic buildings which did survive were the parish church, St Giles Without Cripplegate, and remains of the city walls - all of which can still be found within the concrete complex. 

In the 1950s, discussion began on how to redevelop the area; since the population had dropped from over five thousand to 48, residential development was seen as a priority. After winning an architectural competition, Chamberlin, Powell & Bon began work in 1965. 

The name of the estate alludes to the fortifications which once stood on part of the site - and that spirit of being fortified and protected from the outer world is fundamental to its architecture. Walk up from its underground car parks, or across the footbridge from Barbican underground station, and you are inside a space which aimed to offer all its residents needed, with its walls protecting them from the noise and activity of the city beyond. There are the homes and cultural amenities, of course, but also a lake, a garden, the arts centre, doctors and dentists, and an area originally intended as a shopping centre. 

Brutalism is intended to refer not to the brutality of form and colour, but rather to this architectural style's emphasis upon beton brut, or raw concrete. In fact, the apparent rough-and-ready appearance of the concrete is misleading. When poured, it had the smooth surface of the wooden shutters which shaped it. A great deal of work with special hammers was required to give a rough surface which exposed the Welsh granite aggregate within. 

Did this tour persuade me to join the Barbican's admirers? Not altogether, but it does give a better appreciation of how the complex works, why it is more than just another mass of high-rise concrete, and why so many of its residents are very proud to live there. 

Sunday 6 October 2013

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

An Open House favourite, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is a grand piece of Victoriana completed in 1868 in classical Italianate style. It combines two nineteenth-century government departments, the Foreign Office and India Office; the Colonial Office would also move here in 1875. Thus even the changing names invoke a great deal of Britain's imperial history. 

Those imperial connections are made even more explicit in the building itself, particularly the former India Office's Durbar Court. Although most of the building was designed by architect George Gilbert Scott, the Durbar Court is the work of Matthew Digby Wyatt, India Office Surveyor. The very idea of a durbar court was of course an import from India, but as it refers to a ruler's court it is not only a cultural appropriation but also an assertion of British imperial power. The decoration includes many further references, including figures such as Warren Hastings, first Governor-General of Bengal, and Charles Cornwallis and William Amherst, Governors-General of India.

Back in the Foreign Office, there is a similarly assertive story being told. Foreign visitors are to be impressed by British power, expressed in this 'drawing room for the nation' and its dramatic features such as the intricately carved white dome of the Muses' Staircase and the elaborate, colourful decoration of the Grand Staircase. 

Among the most dramatic rooms are those of the Locarno Suite, where the 1925 Locarno Treaties were signed. They aimed to ease post-World War One tensions in Europe and normalise relations with Germany; tragically, they would not prevent another World War fourteen years later. During that conflict, these rooms played host to code-breakers. 


Thursday 3 October 2013

Inside Islington Tunnel

The opening of the new public square in front of King's Cross Station was accompanied last weekend by a Victorian-style fair and the Journeys Festival, aiming to explore the area's history, in neighbouring Granary Square. 

While many of the attractions were rather sanitised (including some of the most aesthetically-pleasing piles of coal I've seen), a boat trip along the Regent's Canal was a real treat - especially as it took us through the Islington Tunnel

In the early nineteenth century, canals were the latest transport craze (and although they would soon be overtaken by the railway craze, they continued to play a significant role in transporting freight well into the twentieth century). Thus the Regent's Canal was approved by Parliament in 1812, and the company managed - albeit with some difficulty - to raise funds for its construction. The canal opened in 1820 and among the engineering achievements involved was the construction of a tunnel over half a mile long under the streets of Islington. 

It was quite a feat on the part of the canal's engineer, James Morgan. The construction was done using manual labour, helped only by explosives. Thomas Telford described it as 'materials and workmanship excellent, and its direction perfectly straight'. The fact that it is still in use two centuries later supports his positive assessment. 

Of course, the disadvantage of a tunnel is that it generally doesn't have a towpath. Unable to have their barges towed along its length by horse, the barge crew had to 'leg' the boat through, lying on their backs and using their legs to push it along the tunnel length. They must have been hugely relieved when an alternative system came into operation in 1826! A steam tug heaved barges on a continuous chain, saving the efforts of their crews. Only in the 1930s was it replaced by a diesel engine, although today's barges are expected to travel through under their own power.

The tunnel has arguably increased in status in recent decades. Once the third-longest canal tunnel in the south-east, it is now the longest left in use. In former first place was Strood Tunnel, since converted into a railway tunnel, while the second-placed Greywell Tunnel closed in 1932.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Arsenic and the Royal Arsenal

Fans of golden-age detective fiction may well be familiar with the Marsh test - the method used to detect the presence of arsenic. Its inventor, the chemist James Marsh, developed it while working at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.

There were already tests for arsenic available, and Marsh was familiar with these. Indeed, he appeared in court as a prosecution witness on poisons - and it was that experience which led him to develop his own, more sensitive test. In 1833 he had used the test developed by Samuel Hahnemann, which produced a yellow precipitate when arsenic was present, to establish that there was arsenic in the coffee one John Bodle of Plumstead had given his grandfather. However, by the time the case came to trial, the yellow precipitate had degraded; the jury was unconvinced; and Bodle escaped conviction. Although it now seems to be accepted that lack of forensic evidence prompted the acquittal, a contemporary report in the Spectator suggests that the real issue was whether John or his father, the victim's son, was responsible for the death. Whichever version is correct, it was around that time that Marsh began his work of refining the test for arsenic.

Marsh was highly successful, developing a new test in 1836 (less than three years after the Bodle trial) which could not only measure the quantity of arsenic present, but also detect tiny amounts. It made him famous, but by no means represented his only achievement. As Ordnance Chemist at Woolwich Arsenal and assistant to Michael Faraday, he invented electromagnetic equipment as well as developing a screw time fuze for mortar shells. Nonetheless, it is the Marsh test which has kept his name alive over the intervening centuries.

Arguably, that fame is well-deserved. The test soon came to public attention - not in a British trial, but in the French case of Marie Lafarge who was convicted of poisoning her husband. Awareness that the poison (then readily available for purchase) was now detectable may have turned other would-be poisoners from temptation, and saved lives.

As for the Bodle murder, John Bodle would later confess that he, not his father, was guilty. Having already been acquitted of the crime, he could not be tried again.