Wednesday 31 December 2014

Top ten of 2014

The final hours of 2014 are a good time to look back at my blogging year, so here are the ten most popular posts. First, the five most popular written this year:
  1. In first place, a Victorian urinal! 'Please adjust your dress' looks at the rather magnificent cast-iron urinal now in St Fagan's National History Museum, Wales.
  2. A visit to the Excalibur Estate, Catford captured the moment when Britain's largest prefab estate was poised on the brink of partial demolition. A lively Prefab Museum, full of art and artefacts, told its story. Nine months later, some demolition is underway and the museum has been forced to close - although it continues online and hopes to reopen elsewhere. 
  3. The beauties of Tooting Broadway include a fantastic cast-iron lamp/signpost/ventilation shaft. It was deservedly popular with readers, taking third place. (There are some good ghost signs nearby, too!)
  4. At number four, proof that you can find London connections almost anywhere! Paris' otherwise France-focused Cité d'Architecture includes a wonderful model of the construction of Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.
  5. Fifth is a pictorial visit to the Thames foreshore, in all its many colours!

The top five older posts include some returning favourites from last year:
  1. Most read last year, and top of the list again this year, is my (horrible) walk through Rotherhithe Tunnel. A year and a half later, I think my lungs have almost recovered...
  2. Getting more popular with age is that vintage sandwich classic, Shippams Paste. The company's unusual clock still graces central Chichester.
  3. London's finest cashpoint has a fishy third place.
  4. A hidden gem of a museum, highly specialist and only open once a month, but well worth the trip to Balham: it's the London Sewing Machine Museum.
  5. Downton Abbey? Image searches? Whatever the reason, this little look at servants' bells remains firmly in the top ten.

For the first time, one of my pages was more popular than any of the individual blog posts: the slightly idiosyncratic list of unusual London places to visit. The pages dedicated to ghost signs and Postman's Park weren't far behind. (Unsurpringly less popular was my very niche page on Deptford Power Station, 1912!)

Outside these pages, I share more information on similar topics on Twitter and the Caroline's Miscellany facebook page.

I hope you've enjoyed this look back at the year. Most of all, thank you to all my readers, and especially to everyone who has commented or otherwise contacted me this year. All the best for 2015!

Sunday 28 December 2014

Tay Bridge Disaster

This week marks the 135th anniversary of the Tay Bridge Disaster, which saw a train plunge into the River Tay during a storm on 28 December 1879. All those on board were killed.

The bridge had been constructed only a few years earlier, to carry the railway between Dundee and Wormit. It was initially seen as an engineering triumph - its successor is the longest rail bridge over water in Europe.
The current Tay Bridge

Although construction began in 1871, the first train did not cross until 1877 and the bridge opened to passengers in June 1878. Challenges included changes to the design when the bedrock proved much deeper than expected; the 2.75-mile length to be spanned, done in a curving sweep; and the need for height so ships sailing to Perth could pass beneath. The bridge was supported on cast-iron piers, with the cast-iron columns supporting its girders strengthened by wrought-iron cross-bracing.

On the night of 28 December, a ferocious storm swept across the bridge. At 7.13pm, a train set off north along the bridge; it never reached the other side. The storm took not only the train, but also the central spans of the bridge itself into the river. In fact, the train was found still within the bridge's girders when divers examined the scene. (The locomotive was later recovered and returned to service.) 46 bodies were recovered, but at least 59 and perhaps as many as 75 people died.

Investigations into the bridge included testing of the girders in London, at the Kirkcaldy Testing Works (now a museum). David Kirkaldy was able to confirm that the cast iron lugs used to fasten tie bars to the bridge columns, and the ties themselves, were inadequate. Combined with design flaws (notably a lack of allowance for wind loading, which meant the bracing was inadequate); the questionable quality of castings by the foundry; and poor maintenance, they left the bridge unable to withstand the storm of 28 December. The Court of Inquiry which investigated the disaster did not reach complete agreement on its causes, but did broadly agree on these points.

Engineer Sir Thomas Bouch had designed the bridge, and was responsible for its construction and maintenance; he was knighted in part because of this work. Unsurprisingly, the effect of the disaster on his reputation was devastating. At the time of the disaster, he had been working on the proposed Forth Bridge, but the design work was transferred elsewhere. He died the following year, before the official inquiry was complete. 

A new bridge was built parallel to the old one, opening in 1887 - it incorporates some wrought iron girders from its predecessor. Parts of the original bridge's piers still remain visible. A memorial at the end of the bridge in Dundee lists the names of the known victims. 



Tuesday 23 December 2014

Poisonous plants and a modernist masterpiece

In the depths of midwinter, it's good to look back at the brighter days of summer. Courtesy of a visit during Open Gardens Weekend, let's wander round the colourful garden and Grade I-listed building of the Royal College of Physicians. 

Plants are central to medicine: they are the source of many of our drugs, and have been for millennia. The RCP's garden of medicinal plants unites key species from around the world - 1,500 of them. A key theme of our guided tour was that most of these plants are highly poisonous if consumed other than in small, medicinal doses. From opium poppies to digitalis, most are capable of harming or killing. Tread warily!

The gardens were replanted in 2005, but date from 1965. The current headquarters opened a year earlier, although the RCP was founded in 1518, and are an interesting contrast to their neighbours on the edge of Regent's Park. This modernist building was designed by the Le Corbusier-influenced Sir Denys Lasdun; it hardly blends with its neighbours, but does offer an interesting counterpoint to them. Even on a cloudy June day, its bright, clean lines were striking.

Around the same time, Lasdun's National Theatre was also built. While opinion on his work in London is divided, RIBA recognised its quality when they awarded Lasdun their Trustees' Medal. The RCP are currently celebrating him with an exhibition in their landmark building, which runs until 13 February 2015

Thursday 18 December 2014

Duchess of Deptford

Hogarth's prints are full of detail, much of it significant to his eighteenth-century audience but obscure to the modern viewer. The current exhibition at the Cartoon Museum does a great job not only of showing many of Hogarth's works but also of explaining lots of those intriguing details. One which caught my eye was mention of Nan Rawlings, known as 'Duchess of Deptford' or 'Deptford Nan'. 

Nan's portrait features in the engraving The Cockpit, which gives a strong clue as to her unsavoury occupation. The cockpit was a venue for cock-fighting, and Nan was a cock-breeder and well-known figure on the fighting circuit. As her nicknames suggest, she was based in Deptford. 

There doesn't seem to be much more information available about Nan Rawlings. It's perhaps not surprising: although (as Hogarth shows) people of all classes attended cock fights, those who made their livings from the activity were not likely to feature in many histories. In fact, she may have been forgotten fairly soon after her death: by 1803, the 'Duchess of Deptford' was a title accorded to a lavishly-dressed figure in a print satirising the nouveau riche

In 1835, cock-fighting was banned by the Cruelty to Animals Act.  One suspects that Hogarth would have approved: The Cockpit is a depiction of the vice and degradation of its gambling audience, while his series Four Stages of Cruelty begins with its central character delighting in such animal suffering and ends with his executed body being dissected at Surgeons' Hall.
The Museum of London website has the image and a description

Hogarth's London continues at the Cartoon Museum, Little Russell Street, until 18 January 2015 and is well worth a visit. I attended with London Historians

Saturday 13 December 2014

Murals in and out: Camberwell Library and Bath House

The Edwardian building housing Camberwell's former Passmore Edwards Library & Bath House has two murals. The first is something of a local landmark, its tiles depicting a Camberwell Beauty butterfly. They adorn the gable wall of the former baths, now home to Lynn AC Boxing Club. The Royal Doulton tiles were moved here in 1982 when their original home - the factory of stationers Samuel Jones & Co - was demolished.

The library's main room is bright, with windows and skylights: what a contrast to the windowless basement which housed the children's library. However, inside that basement are secret treasures: murals painted on the upper walls. Among the institutional green paint, pipes and wires are wonderful, delicate images from Alice in Wonderland and fairy stories. No wonder that a contemporary news report proclaimed 'Dingy Cellar Becomes a Fairy Palace'!

I visited during Open House weekend. Unfortunately, I've since lost my note of the artist's name: if anyone knows, I would be very grateful!

Saturday 29 November 2014

Please adjust your dress


While I don't actively plan my visits around the presence of Victorian cast-iron urinals, it's always a joy to come across them - at the National Railway Museum, York, the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, and most recently, St Fagans National History Museum, Wales. 

The Welsh example is technically Scottish, since it was cast by the omnipresent Walter Macfarlane & Co at their Saracen Foundry. However, it spent nearly a century in Llanwrtyd Wells before moving to St Fagans in 1978. 

Like all Macfarlane's work, the urinal is full of elegant and decorative detail. A particularly nice feature, though, is the admonition cast into a panel of each stall to 'please adjust your dress before leaving'.

Monday 17 November 2014

Crystal Palace in Paris

The amazing Crystal Palace, star of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park and later of Crystal Palace Park in Sydenham, was destroyed by a fire in 1936. However, it lives on in a model in Paris - where it is shown still under construction. 

The Cité d'Architecture et de la Patrimoine in the Trocadéro is dedicated to exploring France's architecture. However, it recognises the importance of the Crystal Palace as a pioneering work of pre-fabrication, and has a marvellous model in 1/100 scale, made by Philippe Dubois and Michel Goudin. 

Behind the famous facade, the builders are still at work assembling and erecting the cast-iron framework. Most of the glass is yet to be put in place. The Park's elm trees, famously incorporated into the interior of the central hall, are visible here.

The depiction of wooden cranes seems anachronistic at first glance, but is correct: this extraordinary structure was built before powered cranes had been developed. 

Of course, there is much more to the Cité d'Architecture than this tribute to a British masterpiece. Perhaps the most striking exhibits are those in the cast galleries: plaster replicas of building features from all over France. 

The Crystal Palace has a natural home here, perhaps: the Palais de Chaillot was itself built  for an International Exhibition in 1937 (replacing the earlier Palais constructed for the 1878 Universal Exhibition). Its windows offer excellent views of a landmark from the 1889 Universal Exhibition, the Eiffel Tower. 

Saturday 8 November 2014

Speaking arms - the Chappe telegraph

In the eighteenth century, it took the best part of a week to get a message from Paris to the naval port of Brest and receive the reply. By 1800, it could be done in an hour. The reason? Rather than sending a messenger on horseback, the French state was now using a visual telegraph system named for its creator, Claude Chappe.

It was his family's intention that Claude would enter the church, but that career was disrupted by the French Revolution. However, as the nephew of an astronomer, he was already interested in the physical sciences and with his brothers, turned to invention. They worked to devise a practical system of semaphore signalling which would allow messages to be sent and received quickly and efficiently. The word 'telegraph' was coined to describe it.

Although we think of semaphore systems as involving flags, Chappe realised that much better visibility could be achieved if the message was communicated by angled arms. A string of towers could be set up, each one ten or fifteen miles apart, and operators with telescopes would send and receive the signals along the line. The government eagerly took up his invention, with the first line between Paris and Lille operating from 1794, and lines soon extended between key locations across France. They would prove invaluable to Napoleon in wartime, and continued in use until the mid-nineteenth century when overtaken by new technology: the electric telegraph. Perhaps its last use was in the Crimean War, when a mobile system was employed.

To understand how the system worked, there is no better place to go than the Musée Télégraphe de Chappe at Saint Marcan in north-east Brittany. There, one of the towers survives and has been restored to working order. Visitors can not only learn about the system, but watch it in action and even set signals themselves. (My own attempt suggested that I have not missed my vocation!)

The key to the system's speed and security can be found on the museum's sign. The signals did not proceed letter by letter, but communicated a number between 1 and 92. Each pair of numbers gave the page and line of a signal book; by turning to the page and reading the relevant line, the message recipient obtained anything from a word to a complete phrase or sentence. Thus even a long message could be reduced to a fairly small number of signals; without the codebook, it was meaningless, so even the operators did not understand the message they were relaying.

Once it had been encoded into pairs of numbers, the message would be transmitted from station to station. Each one was a small but solid stone building: sturdy construction was required to support the weight of the mechanism on its roof.

The operator worked on the first floor, looking carefully for messages from neighbouring stations on the line. When a signal appeared at the previous station, the operator would replicate it on his own signal. The main arm would be diagonal as he worked, and swung into a horizontal position when the signal was complete. He would then watch to see that it had been correctly reproduced at the next station before returning his signal to the neutral position (all arms vertical).

The towers were on high points, for obvious reasons of visibility. That resulted in some startling locations: many church towers were used, while the station to the east of Saint Marcan was on Mont Saint Michel. Nonetheless, messages could only be sent when daylight and weather conditions allowed sufficient visibility.

The Parisian starting point for the telegraph was at Menilmontant. The site of the Chappe telegraph station is now commemorated by street names, plaques - and the local Metro station, Télégraphe.

Thursday 25 September 2014

Ghost signs (113): Lewisham paint

This lovely ghost sign on Belmont Hill was uncovered earlier this year when a hoarding was removed - many thanks to Alan Burkitt-Gray for telling me about it. Running Past has done some fascinating research on the sign and dated it to before 1912, making it a particularly exciting example. 

C Holdaway advertises himself as a 'Painter Grainer & Decorator' as well as offering 'estimates for general repairs'. While painters, decorators and general repairs remain familiar in modern life, the 'grainer' is less common today. Graining was a method of using paint to imitate wood - either on non-wooden surfaces, or on soft wood to make it look like more expensive hardwood. It enjoyed real popularity in the nineteenth century, when labour was cheap and wood expensive; today, it is often more economical to use the real thing than employ an artisan to imitate it. How apt, then, that this vintage sign should make reference to an equally vintage trade.

Thursday 18 September 2014

London exploration, large and small

If you want to explore London this weekend, there are some exciting options available. The biggest, of course, is the annual Open House weekend. Over 800 buildings and more are open on 20 and 21 September - from the large and famous, like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to small and quirky buildings such as Rotherhithe's Old Mortuary.

Fancy a break and a sit-down? Or an altogether more relaxed weekend? If so, Londonist has a weekend of Thames-themed talks. They're all in a perfect location: HMS President, currently a work of art in itself as it has been painted in 'dazzle camouflage' by artist Tobias Rehberger to mark the centenary of World War One. Tickets for individual talks and day passes are available.

Finally, you can sample the City of London's history on a much smaller scale. The new Heritage Gallery in the Guildhall Art Gallery is not large, but the space curated by London Metropolitan Archives is packed with treasures. The centrepiece is a copy of Magna Carta, ready for its 800th birthday next year; there are lots of other gems including 15th-century portraits of City aldermen and a First World War recruitment poster. The main art gallery has also been re-hung, so it's an excellent time to visit - and admission is free. 

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Vintage tractors

For the 22nd year, Plenee Jugon in Brittany hosted a Festival of Mechanisation, featuring farm vehicles from the 1920s to the 1950s. There were lots of vintage tractors, some rusty, others restored to vivid colour.


Tuesday 29 July 2014

Bristol time

Moving a country from solar time to unified time is no easy matter (France had three separate kinds of time at one point). However, the railways made it a necessity: local time, which varied by minutes as one travelled east or west, was not really compatible with accurate railway timetables. Noon in Bristol, for example, is over ten minutes later than noon in London.When the Great Western Railway came to Bristol in 1841, it brought 'railway time' with it.

Bristolians had other reasons for wanting to know Greenwich Mean Time as accurately as local time. As a major seafaring port (it traded with America and the Caribbean, and was heavily connected to the slave trade), the city had plenty of people who needed GMT in order to calculate longitude and thus navigate accurately on the oceans. And in 1852, the electric telegraph arrived - with Bristol time creating the ridiculous situation of messages from London apparently arriving before they were sent. Within a few months, the city's public clocks moved from local time to GMT.

Today, few of us tell the time by the sun, so we don't notice the discrepancies between solar noon and the time on our clocks. For those who lived through the transition, though, the clock on Bristol's Corn Exchange with its two minute hands must have been very helpful. Installed in 1822 with just one minute hand set to local time, it was later given a second set to GMT. Only when the city' time was unified in 1852 was the Bristol hand removed; it was finally restored in 1989. 

Sunday 20 July 2014

Cupboards-full of Roman wall

Eager to protect Londinium, the Romans built a wall around the city at the turn of the 3rd century, and kept working on it for the next 200 years. The wall was composed of Kentish ragstone rubble, held together with mortar, and interspersed with bright red stripes of tiles. It was adopted and adapted by later Londoners, until falling into disrepair in the eighteenth century. Today, only various fragments remain. 

Some pieces of wall are well-known and substantial; they can be found just outside Tower Hill tube station and alongside the Museum of London, for example. (If you want to explore in much more detail, the Museum of London's London Wall Walk is still available online, although many of the 23 information panels are now damaged or missing.) Other sections are in more surprising places - even an underground car park

Two pieces of late Roman wall find themselves in another surprising context. On the east side of Jewry Street is the former Sir John Cass College, built in 1902 and currently occupied by London Metropolitan University. Within its basement are the ancient fragments - carefully preserved, in a manner wholly evocative of twentieth-century education establishments, within glass-fronted cupboards. The larger piece even has a label.