Sunday 29 March 2015

Postman's Park (5): Alexander Stewart Brown

Most of the events commemorated in the Watts Memorial involve working-class people living in poorer areas. Their deaths are often a result of dangerous work or impoverished living conditions: house fires, suffocation by sewer gas, drowning in London's rivers. However, Dr Alexander Stewart Brown FRCS was moving in a very different milieu when he proved his bravery.

The doctor was well-known locally, not least as the chairman of the Brockley Conservative Association. He was also a Freemason and a member of the Board of Health for Lewisham. He lived comfortably in Brockley, keeping a pony and trap (and probably other vehicles as well). 

In the autumn of 1900, he took a holiday to Boulogne. Today we know Boulogne primarily as a cross-Channel ferry port, but for the Victorians it was a fashionable bathing resort offering those two essentials, hydrotherapy and a casino. When Dr Stewart Brown chose to visit, then, he was joining other middle-class people at play. The hydrotherapy facilities may have had a particular appeal for him as he was convalescing from a carriage accident several weeks earlier in which his spine had been injured. He probably travelled by South Eastern Railways' service: first the train from London to Folkestone, then the ferry to Boulogne.

Unfortunately, the doctor's holiday would end in tragedy. He was walking on the pier when he realised that a man had fallen into the sea. Without even pausing to remove clothing, Dr Stewart Brown jumped in to rescue him. He then spent a further two hours reviving him. The epic effort was successful, and the man survived. The doctor would not be so lucky: thanks to all that time in wet clothes, he caught a severe cold which turned into pneumonia. Back at his home, Holly Lodge in Brockley Road, he passed quietly away aged 45.

The funeral was well-attended by 'a large and sympathetic gathering'. His body was carried in a Washington car (a glass hearse) pulled by four horses; behind followed his favourite horse and trap. At the end of the ceremony, the Freemasons present threw acacia sprigs into the grave (in freemasonry, these represent immortality of the soul). An apt text was chosen for the sermon: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.' Against such a backdrop, the wording of his plaque on the Watts Memorial appears restrained:


Sunday 22 March 2015

Postman's Park (4): tragedy in a sewer

Walter Digby was employed by East Ham District Council as a sewage worker. One of his daily jobs was to descend the sewer shaft in the pumping-station yard and clean the sewer screen. On Monday 1 July 1895, he climbed down the ladder as usual – but something went horribly wrong. He fell into the water and didn’t re-emerge.
Thus started a chain of events which would result in five deaths. First, Digby’s colleague Arthur Rutter, who had seen him fall, climbed down to rescue him. However, he too disappeared into the water. Meanwhile, another colleague went to fetch help; he brought back the engineer in charge of the works, Mr F Mills. Mills too descended to see what had happened; he too was overcome and sank into the water. Robert Durrant was next to attempt a rescue, but also went into the water. Finally, Frederick Jones followed; he was overcome but did not actually sink into the sewer water.

The police now arrived, under the command of Sergeant Brain. Pumps were switched on to reduce the water levels, and a bucket of burning coal was lowered into the sewer to test the air (uselessly, as it turned out). A local watchman, Herbert Worman, now volunteered to make a further rescue attempt and was lowered down with a rope around him. He attached another rope to Jones, who was lifted unconscious from the sewer.

Eventually, the other men’s bodies were removed; having been in the water three or four hours, all were dead. Meanwhile, the unconscious Jones was taken to hospital and artificial respiration attempted for two and a half hours. He remained unconscious but breathing, and was given brandy-and-ether injections every fifteen minutes. Finally he was given oxygen, but died in the early hours of the next morning.

These events and the enquiries which followed were fully reported in the local newspaper, The Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser. The inquest on the four men who died at the scene reached a verdict of accidental death after hearing evidence that the deceased had drowned. However, the cause of the calamity was still something of a mystery. It was only solved at the second inquest, for Jones, where evidence from Dr Haldane, a leading expert on poisonous gases from Oxford University, was read out. He concluded that the cause of the incident was ‘sulphuretted hydrogen’ (hydrogen sulphide) in the sewage water, which poisoned the air sufficiently to overcome the men. The presence of the gas wouldn’t have prevented the coal from continuing to burn. Once again, the verdict was accidental death. However, the jury had harsh words for the Council about the lack of safety precautions in place, which they described as “great negligence”. Meanwhile, a Relief Fund for the widows and orphans of the five deceased had collected over £776 by early August.

The mystery, the lack of health and safety precautions, and the generous public response are not mentioned on the Watts Memorial. However, the bare fact of the bravery shown by the four men who died attempting to rescue their colleagues is clearly expressed:

Saturday 21 March 2015

Archaeological find at Hampton Court Palace

When a palace is 500 years old, and has undergone endless modernisations and remodelling, it's unsurprising that new work can lead to new discoveries. However, a request to repair the uneven floors of a room used by the Royal School of Needlework didn't immediately suggest that exciting finds would follow.

When the floorboards were lifted, an extraordinary assortment of brickwork was revealed. It became apparent that the Victorians had simply added supports and laid the floor over the foundations of some much older buildings. In fact, like much of the Palace's Fountain Court, this room covered the site of the former private apartment of the Queen.

Which queen? Well, the answer varies with the brickwork colour! The red brick indicates the walls of a new apartment built for Anne Boleyn in the 1530s. (Most of Henry's wives got new lodgings, but not to be outdone, he had his own rooms rebuilt six or so times too.)

Unfortunately, the work lasted longer than Anne's reign. After her execution and Henry VIII's third marriage to Jane Seymour, the rooms were completed - with alterations - for his new Queen around 1537. Among the additions to the original design were bay windows, and we can see the foundations of one of these in the lines of paler bricks. This room was probably the Privy Wardrobe, close to the kitchen and a nursery for Henry VIII's only son Prince Edward.

The building did not settle into a peaceful existence, however. Instead, it seems to have settled further into the neighbouring moat: engineering works were carried out to shore it up in the late sixteenth century. Evidence of these was also found here: a clay pipe stamped with its maker's symbol, allowing it to be dated to between 1570 and 1610. (The problem of sinking walls has never gone away: it is noticeable that the later courses of brick are not straight either.)

When  William and Mary came to the throne in 1689, they found the Tudor buildings too old-fashioned for their tastes and brought in Sir Christopher Wren to rebuild in the fashionable baroque style. Lack of time and money would restrict the work, limiting the rebuilding to the king's and queen's main apartments - so our apartment was demolished. However, the time-conscious Wren didn't take out the foundations. Instead, his new foundations simply went over and through them. We can see his line of brick cutting through the bay window. 

The Victorians worked on the building yet again, and made a large cut through all those earlier foundations, probably for a utility pipe. The current work will be more respectful: reliable steel supports will be put into place - carefully taking the pressure off the archaeology below.

An apparently simple job to replace some wonky floorboards, then, has revealed a great deal of the fascinating history of the Palace!

I visited the excavation during one of the members' events for Historic Royal Palaces; membership also includes the Tower of London, Banqueting House, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Postman's Park (3): Mary Rogers

The twin-screw steamship Stella was operated by the London & South Western Railway Company between Southampton, Jersey and Guernsey as an extension of its railway service to the coast. Its rival the Great Western Railway ran a service from Weymouth; the two competed on the speed of their crossings, often racing each other from the Casquets reef to St Helier. Although the companies did not officially acknowledge the competition, passengers were well aware of it and the newspapers reported it.

On 30 March 1899, both companies were running their first daytime service of the year. Travelling to the Channel Islands, the Stella hit thick fog. It was nearing the Casquets reef, notorious for its danger and the number of ships which had been lost there. Although the Casquets did have a lighthouse, the light was not visible due to the weather conditions, while the Stella didn't hear the fog signal until too late. The captain believed that the reef was still several miles ahead, a mistake which had tragic consequences: still at full speed, the Stella ran aground on the Casquets and sank in eight minutes.

Press reports stated that the conduct of those on board was exemplary, with no men leaving the ship until all women and children were in lifeboats - this appears to have been exaggerated as one lifeboat contained a number of men but only one woman, while some women and children seem to have been left on board. Those who made it to the lifeboats suffered a long night in cold seas. One capsized at launch, although survivors clung on to it; finally righted by a huge wave, it was flooded and swept along by the tide for nearly 24 hours before being found. Among those who died during its night at sea were the mother and brother of Bening Mourant Arnold, who survived only because his mother had tied the laces of his football to his shirt collar. Tragically, according to his father's memoir, Bening had sighted the lights of Alderney harbour but because another passenger believed that two red lights meant danger, they rowed away and were carried down the French coast.

Among the 105 who died was Mary Rogers, the senior stewardess. She was born in Frome, Somerset but married a seaman from Southampton. By the time of the disaster she was a widow with two grown-up children and a dependent father; her husband had been washed overboard the Honfleur six years earlier. When disaster struck the Stella, it is said that she calmly got the women out on deck and into lifeboats. One woman was without a lifebelt; Mary gave her her own. She then refused to get into the boat herself, as it was already full and she would not risk endangering it. She waved it goodbye; as the ship went down, her reported last words were, 'Lord, have me.' Her body was never found. (The accuracy of this account has been questioned by Jake Simpkin's research, but whether or not the story's details are all true, her conduct and that of the other stewardess Ada Preston certainly deserved praise; 'the greatest admiration' was expressed by the Board of Trade inquiry.)

Mary became a national hero. Feminist Frances Power Cobbe proposed a memorial; £570 was raised and the money was shared between Mary's family and the construction of a memorial on the quay at Southampton. Mary also has a stained glass window in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral; a memorial was placed on the harbour wall at St Peter Port, Guernsey in 1997. William McGonagall, best known for his poem on the Tay Bridge Disaster, was also moved to verse on this occasion although he did not mention Mary Rogers. In his inimitable style, he begins:
'Twas in the month of March and in the year of 1899,
Which will be remembered for a very long time;
The wreck of the steamer "Stella" that was wrecked on the Casquet Rocks,
By losing her bearings in a fog, and received some terrible shocks.
Rather more elegantly, Mary's plaque on the Watts Memorial reads:


Following the disaster, the two steamship companies finally agreed to co-operate. They ran services on alternate days, pooling ticket receipts: there would be no more racing. As for the Stella, its wreck was rediscovered in 1973 by divers Richard Keen and Fred Shaw. They kept its location a secret until it was rediscovered by John Ovenden. With David Shayer, he has published a book on its discovery.

In the Guernsey Folk and Costume Museum courtyard is the captain's skiff from the Stella. Smaller than the ship's lifeboats, it nonetheless carried 14 people to safety during the events in which Mary Rogers lost her life.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Drapers' Hall

The Drapers' Company received its Royal Charter in 1364 and is third in the order of precedence of City Companies. Originally its hall was in St Swithin's Lane, but when Thomas Cromwell was executed his City mansion became the property of Henry VIII. The king invited the Drapers' Company to purchase the site, and it was not an invitation they were expected to refuse. The mansion on Throgmorton Street thus became the new Drapers' Hall in 1543.

As the cloth and drapery trade moved away from the City of London, the Company's role became less important. However, its wealth and the charitable trusts it administered meant that it continues to have a purpose, and the means to carry it out. It continues to administer its own trusts and support other charities, and the hall has remained an important centre for its work. Thus when the hall was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, and again by a fire in 1772, it was rebuilt each time. There were further alterations in the late nineteenth century, creating the building we have today. 

Each public room in the Hall is elaborately decorated. Rich materials and decorations, marble and wood panelling, painted ceilings and elaborate chandeliers abound. Decorators included famous companies such as Crace & Son and Morris & Co.

 The Court Dining Room's ceiling features Jason and the Golden Fleece, a symbol of prosperity.

The Court Room's chandeliers are among the oldest in the building, dating from 1797. Meanwhie, the oak-panelled Corridor of 1899 has the newest chandelier - created from spare drops found in storage. It's a particularly glamorous piece of recycling!

The Corridor's walls are hung with royal charters and grants of arms, the oldest of which dates back to the reign of Edward III.  

Perhaps the grandest room in the Hall is the Livery Hall itself, a huge room with galleries and a curving end wall. 

I visited with London Historians; the City livery companies are the central theme for this year's events including a forthcoming talk at the Information Technologists' Hall. Our guide was the incredibly knowledgeable company archivist, who shared a wealth of information and insight into the history of the company, the building, and its decorations and artworks.

More photographs available on Flickr.

Sunday 8 March 2015

Postman's Park (2): Alice Ayres

Alice Ayres was employed as nursemaid to her sister Mary Ann or Martha Chandler's children; neighbours described her as a quiet, hard-working young woman. She and the Chandler family lived at 194 Union Street, Borough, above an oil and paint shop. When a fire started in the shop during the night of 25 April 1885, Alice and the children (aged about 6, 2 and 9 months) were sleeping upstairs. Alice went to the window with one of the children, manoeuvred a feather mattress out of the window, then dropped the child to safety. Instead of saving herself next, as the crowd outside begged her to, she went back twice more, rescuing the other two children (although one would not survive the fall).
Finally, she tried to make her own escape - but too late. Smoke inhalation and exhaustion meant that she fell awkwardly, hitting the shop front and then the pavement with great force. She died two days later in Guy's Hospital from severe spinal injuries; she was 25. Alice was buried in an elaborate public funeral and her grave was marked with a granite monument paid for by public subscription. Her conduct was also recognised by the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, which sent a letter of commendation and ten guineas to her father.

Alice thus became a popular Victorian heroine, whose story was published not only in newspaper accounts but also in several collections of inspirational stories. As late as 1936, a Borough street was renamed Ayres Street after her. However, her story would probably be forgotten by now were it not for the unassuming plaque in Postman's Park which reads:

That plaque gave her an unusual afterlife, as the alias of a character in the film Closer. Jane Jones notices the name while in Postman's Park, location of the film's opening and closing scenes.  

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Chester Cathedral: heat and light

Originally part of an abbey founded in the 11th century, Chester Cathedral is an unusual survivor: it avoided ruin in the Reformation when Henry VIII decided to create the Diocese of Chester and make this its cathedral. With the current building dating back to the 13th century, an awful lot of eras have left traces in its fabrics and fittings. 

Among the most stolid features are the Victorian heaters still standing along its walls (although underfloor heating was installed in 1999). As the fanciful lettering around them proclaims, they are 'Gurney's Patent, The London Warming & Ventilating Company'. Proof that you can find a London connection almost anywhere!

The Gurney stove was the invention of the magnificently-named Goldsworthy Gurney, a surgeon who also turned to engineering in the 1820s. He had a particular interest in steam carriages, building a number of vehicles but failing to achieve commercial success. However, his interests ranged considerably more widely. By 1852, he was improving lighting and heating in the Houses of Parliament - although his ventilation improvements couldn't mitigate the stink entering from the Thames - and in 1856, he patented his heating stove. He soon sold the rights to the London Warming & Ventilating Company, who continued to produce the heater well into the twentieth century. One of its key features was that the ribs on its exterior stood in a shallow trough of water, thus humidifying the air as well as warming it. The stove burned anthracite, although some were later converted to other fuels (Hereford Cathedral's heaters became gas-firing in 1989).

The heater was successfully sold to all sorts of public buildings, and seems to have been particularly popular with cathedrals. Apparently, 22 were heated by this impressive cast-iron device. Its main competitor was the Grundy stove, placed in a separate room with the warm air distributed through ventilating ducts and gratings.

It wasn't only the (former) heating which attracted my attention in Chester Cathedral. The incense-laden air filtered the light to magical effect.

Sunday 1 March 2015

Return to Postman's Park

Long-time readers of this blog may remember a series of posts looking at the stories behind each plaque on the Watts Memorial to heroic self-sacrifice in Postman's Park. After five years, I think it's time to dust them off, so they will be (re)appearing each Sunday, updated where appropriate. (The usual mixture of new material will be published mid-week.)

The first post introduces us to the park itself. From next week, we will be plunged into the world of Victorian accidents and disasters.

Postman's Park (1): the park

A tiny patch of green among the City's buildings, Postman's Park was created in 1880 from the former churchyards of St Leonard, Foster Lane; St Botolph Aldersgate; and Christ Church Greyfriars. Its name comes from its proximity to the old General Post Office: the park was a popular place for postal workers to take a lunchbreak. Today, the park retains a Victorian feel, especially in the early autumn.

If the park has a theme, it is not the Royal Mail but memorials. Gravestones are now stacked at its edges.

More famously, and uniquely, a wall in the park displays rows of ceramic memorials to heroic self-sacrifice. Each tile commemorates someone who gave their life to save another; the emphasis is upon 'ordinary' people. This wall was the work of artist and social reformer George Frederick Watts. He wrote to the Times in 1887 suggesting such a memorial, but when the idea failed to be adopted he funded the project himself. The plaques, designed by him, were made by Royal Doulton; he seems to have selected the cases from newspaper reports. They were meant to serve a dual purpose: commemorating those who would otherwise be forgotten, and offering each story as an instructive example to others.

The memorial opened in 1900, with four plaques in place. Watts was personally responsible for a further nine before a committee was formed in 1904 to assist him. He died soon after, but his wife and the committee worked together to place a further forty tablets. The final tablets were unveiled in 1930. Despite occasional suggestions that further plaques should be added, none have been. 
Accounts of Postman's Park often quote from some of the plaques, but all the stories deserve our attention - for the bravery they commemorate, for their human interest, and for the snapshot of Victorian England which they offer. I'm therefore going to be posting on each plaque in a more-or-less regular series. However, as we read these tales of Victorian heroism, we can also wonder: why hasn't the tradition continued since the deaths of Watts and his widow to commemorate today's ordinary heroes?

Update: since this post was originally written in 2008, another plaque has been added. It remembers Leigh Pitt, who died in 2007 saving a boy from drowning. However, there does not seem to be a wider revival of the memorial - yet.