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!