Sunday 31 May 2015

Postman's Park (13): death in a distillery well

Godfrey Maule Nicholson was the manager of Nicholson's Gin Distillery; not yet 30 at the time of his death, he may have been a member of the owning family. J & W Nicholson & Co had been founded in the 1730s, producing Lamplighter Gin; by the late nineteenth century, they were thriving - and developed an unusual sporting link. In 1864, their chairman (and keen cricketer) William Nicholson advanced money to the MCC to purchase Lord's Cricket Ground. In 1889 he would loan the money for the Lord's Pavilion. This generosity did not go unreciprocated: the MCC's colours were changed from sky-blue to red and yellow. It is believed by the family and the MCC - if not proven - that the choice of Nicholson's corporate colours was no coincidence.
In 1872, Nicholson's moved their distillery to Three Mills. It continued in operation there until 1941, when wartime grain shortages forced its closure, and was owned by the company until 1966; it is now the Three Mills Studios. (Nicholson's remain a London feature thanks to their pubs - many of which are former 'gin palaces'.) However, in 1901 it was the scene of a disastrous industrial accident. Nicholson, George Elliott and Robert Underhill all died on 12 July trying to rescue a colleague, Thomas Pickett, who had descended a well and become overcome by gas. First Nicholson went in after Pickett, but was also overcome. Then Elliott volunteered to go down, against the objections of onlookers, stating he was used to gas. Finally, when none of the men reappeared, Underhill descended. All four would be found dead when the fire brigade were able to retrieve them, hours later.

In addition to their tribute in the Watts Memorial, the three Stratford distillery workers who died trying to rescue their colleagues are also honoured near the scene of the tragedy. Their memorial on Three Mills Green (which replaced the mediaeval-style Victorian original) is of one arm clasping another, sculpted by Alec Peever in 2001. An inscription behind it states 'Of your charity pray for the souls of Thomas Pickett, Godfrey Maule Nicholson, Frederick Eliott and Robert Underhill, who lost their lives in a well beneath this spot on 12 July 1901. The first named while in the execution of his duty was overcome by foul air. The three latter successively descending in heroic efforts to save their comrades shared the same death.'
In the words of the Watts Memorial:


Monday 25 May 2015

Sailors and skittles

How do you keep naval pensioners entertained? At Greenwich's Royal Hospital for Seamen, the Victorian trustees' original answer was a library. There was only one problem: many of the ex-sailors couldn't read. Their next idea was much more successful. In the undercroft, a skittle alley was created in 1864. 

Approached through a long, low corridor, the alley is in a room almost below ground level.

It actually has two alleys, side by side. In the centre, a sloped runway allows balls to be returned to the players with a minimum of effort - no bad thing, since they're very heavy! 

Each ball is made of ironwood, or lignum vitae, and was originally a practice cannonball.The skittles were recycled belaying pins, formerly used to secure ropes on ships. The skittle alley woodwork was made from ships' timbers in Deptford Dockyard.  It's hard to imagine more suitable materials for these nautical players.

While they played skittles, the pensioners indulged in another habit: smoking. (After all, skittles is quintessentially a pub game.)The room was known as 'chalk alley', probably because of the discarded clay pipes crushed underfoot. Marks on the window ledges may also have been made when they sharpened the knives used to cut their tobacco - although an alternative explanation is that surgeons sharpened their blades here in its earlier incarnation as an operating theatre or mortuary. 

Usually closed to the public, the Victorian Skittle Alley sometimes opens as part of the ORNC's events programme. Admission is free, with access via the Painted Hall. You can even have a go at playing skittles yourself!

Sunday 24 May 2015

Postman's Park (12): David Selves

The Watts Monument tells the story of young David Selves's death briefly and simply:

However, there is another tragic aspect to David's story. He was the youngest of eleven children born to George and Emma Selves. His elder brother Arthur had already died from drowning in nearby Plumstead eight years earlier, at the age of 14. The inquest verdict was 'accidental death while bathing'.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Blackfriars Station for Antwerp, Venice and Bromley

Blackfriars Railway Station reopened in 2012 after major rebuilding work. Among other changes, the platforms now run the full length of the bridge over the Thames, and incorporate some of the disused piers from an earlier dismantled bridge. Their roof is covered with over 4,000 solar panels which provide up to half the station's energy. Spacious new ticket halls inevitably make lavish use of glass.

Among all the shiny newness, though, is a large and dramatic piece of the past. This list of destinations is somewhat misleading if consulted by today's travellers! 

Its order is also a little puzzling at first sight; in fact, the left and right columns list international destinations in alphabetical order, while the centre columns give an alphabetical list of British destinations. As a discussion on the always-informative London Reconnections confirms, they were not originally a single 'wall' and did formerly stand as two columns on either side of the station entrance.

Sunday 17 May 2015

Postman's Park (11): John Clinton

According to his memorial tile,


However, a much fuller account of his life is given in a collection of inspirational stories, F J Cross's Beneath the Banner (1895). Supporting details are given in the full version such as dates and addresses, and the author lists his source as the Rev Arthur W Jephson, Vicar of St John's, Walworth. Nonetheless, John's life history involves so many heroic acts in its too-brief ten year span that one's credibility is strained.

The book tells how John was born on 17 January 1884 in Greek Street, Soho, and his family soon moved to Lambeth. The accident which killed him was not the first misfortune to befall him: playing in the street when he was six, a heavy metal gate fell on him. He was not expected to survive his head injuries, or to do so only with severe brain damage, but thanks to the care he received in St Thomas's hospital he recovered fully except for a scar.

There then followed a first daring rescue: when he was 9, John saw a much younger child about to be run over by a hansom cab. He dashed forward and pushed the child out of the way, risking himself in the process (just the sort of rescue that would have got him into Postman's Park had he not survived). Unfortunately, the child's older brother didn't realise what had happened and thumped him in the face for pushing his sibling! (He did apologise later).

Rescue number two and dramatic incident number three occurred that same year when John was home minding the baby. When he left the room for a moment, the baby set itself on fire. Luckily, John was a boy of action once more: he rolled the baby on the floor to put the fire out, before pulling down the curtains which had also caught alight and beating out the flames with his hands.

There was then another move, to Walworth, shortly before John's death. On 16 July 1894, he and a friend went out after tea to play on the Thames foreshore near London Bridge. His friend, Campbell Mortimer, got out of his depth when paddling and was swept out into the river. John jumped in after him and brought him to shore, but was himself swept away and carried under the pier. By the time rescuers found him, he was dead. After his funeral, he was buried in a common grave at Manor Park Cemetery.

Beneath the Banner, which includes the stories of John Clinton and Alice Ayres as well as many better-known heroes, is available from Project Gutenberg.

Thursday 14 May 2015

Video tapes and 3D printers

Hearne House, home to London Underground's technical services section, offered guided tours at the last opening of London Transport Museum's Depot. It was a wonderful mixture of old and new technology, as well as a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the Tube. 

First stop was track monitoring. Since every bit of the track needs to be checked regularly, some trains are fitted with equipment to film and monitor it. The data is then reviewed at Hearne House, and necessary repairs can be ordered. An Automatic Track Monitoring System has been developed: it records track condition using images, laser measurements, and noise and vibration data. RFID tags map the location and the data is sent to Hearne House via wifi. Faults can be identified, and their rate of degradation as well as their current state can be monitored. 

However, its predecessor has not fallen out of use yet: Auto Video Inspection uses VHS tapes to record images of the track. While you might think the cameras could be replaced with digital versions, other parts of the system such as specialist DOS software pinpointing the location of each image are harder to update. Thus the near-obsolete technology will enjoy a little more use on the Underground (at least as long as old equipment can be cannibalised for spare parts).

By contrast, the experimental workshop has some state-of-the-art equipment including a 3D printer. It's invaluable for producing prototypes which can, for example, be used to check that a part can actually be fitted. While CAD can ensure that once in place, the part has the space it needs, getting it there can be another story! Having a plastic model to experiment with therefore saves much time and money.

However, for our visit the printer produced Big Ben and the Gherkin, as well as roundel keyrings. The white material supports overhanging parts of the model during printing, and is washed away when the piece is complete: hence the yellow models apparently emerging from cocoons. 

There's a lot of other testing going on in the workshop, with plenty of specialist machinery including a dust chamber to test how well-sealed components are, another chamber which can create variable levels of heat and cold for sustained periods, and machines which replicate the ranges of movement different parts will endure in use. 

A thermal camera produced an oddly disconcerting self-portrait! Other equipment such as an abrasive water jet cutter weren't on view, but we did see video of them in operation. Overall, this was an amazing opportunity to understand a little more of the incredible work required to keep the city moving.

If you haven't been to the Acton Depot, it's well worth a visit. The next open weekend is in September; Hearne House tours may not be available but there are more than enough other activities and things to see to ensure a fascinating visit. 

Sunday 10 May 2015

Postman's Park (10): Samuel Rabbeth

Samuel Rabbeth's story is not dissimilar to that of William Freer Lucas, highlighting the potential dangers faced by nineteenth-century doctors. The 27-year-old was senior residential medical officer at the Royal Free Hospital (then at Gray's Inn Road). He was treating a four-year-old for diphtheria, and again the method of treatment was a tracheotomy. However, it was unsuccessful because a membrane continued to obstruct the boy's breathing. Rabbeth therefore knowingly risked his own life in an attempt to save the child's by sucking away the membrane through a tube. Tragically, both he and the boy died of the disease.
The medical profession was not united in applauding his self-sacrifice. In Everyday Heroism, John Price describes how some practitioners suggested that an air pump or syringe should have been used; to them, his actions were foolhardy as much as they were brave.

Thanks to vaccination against diphtheria, contemporary Britons have largely forgotten the dangers the disease held. However, the Victorians were very aware of its risks: famously, Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Alice died of it after being infected while nursing her children. It affects the upper respiratory tract, causing sore throat, difficulty swallowing, fever, and an adherent membrane in the throat - that membrane which Rabbeth was trying to remove. This could cause the victims to suffocate, and tracheotomy was the first effective treatment developed for the disease. Subsequently, an antitoxin was developed in the 1890s, and a vaccine in 1913.

Rabbeth's memorial plaque states:


Thursday 7 May 2015

Stationers' Hall

The Stationers' Company is over 600 years old, but unlike many of the oldest livery companies such as the Drapers, its members are still largely active in the same industry. Today defined as 'the communications and content industries', it has always included those working in publishing - although what that involves has changed enormously over the centuries. The original guild members wrote and illuminated manuscripts; when printing was introduced in the late fifteenth century, the Stationers embraced it; newspaper makers were incorporate in 1931; and today, they welcome those involved in digital publishing. 

With such a long and varied history, it's unsurprising that a visit to the Stationers' Hall is a fascinating experience. One of the first interesting facts we learned was the origin of the term 'stationer': it comes from the way that unlike most mediaeval craftsmen, the creators and sellers of manuscripts did not move from customer to customer but set up 'stations' (stalls) around St Paul's Cathedral. Stationery because stationary!

In 1559, the guild became a livery company - but with greater status came the responsibility of enforcing copyright. Once a member had asserted ownership of a 'copy' in the Stationer's Company Register, and paid a fee, other members were not allowed to publish it. The Company could not only search for and seize illicit copies, but also prevent publication of books which didn't have a government license. 

The seventeenth century brought a significant source of revenue to the company: it was granted a royal patent to form a publishing company, English Stock. Part of the publishers' profits went towards charitable purposes; much of that profit came from publishing almanacs, including Old Moore's Almanack which still exists today (although with a different publisher).

The Company is also proud of its connection with the King James Bible: the General Committee of Review met at their hall. The Bible thus appears in the decorations throughout the building, as well as on the Company's arms. It can even be see on a drainpipe!

The hall itself has been at the current location since 1606. It was rebuilt following the Great Fire of London, with the new hall opening in 1673. There were then alterations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and further restoration after World War II. The result is a varied grouping of buildings around one of the Company's hidden treasures: its lovely garden. 

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Let's swim in the Thames!

However hot the day, jumping into the river in central London is not currently recommended! (Even the moral rural stretches of the Thames can be risky...) It's a tempting idea, though, as the river becomes ever-cleaner - if only a safe swimming space were available.  

Indeed, it's not a new idea. The Thames did have a lido in the past, nearly got another one for the millennium, and could have one again if architects Studio Octopi are successful. They have launched a project to build swimming baths near Blackfriars Bridge - and yes, the water will be warmed and filtered. If the thought appeals to you, then you can support the project on Kickstarter and receive rewards involving chances to swim in the new pool if and when it opens. 

Sunday 3 May 2015

Postman's Park (9): William Freer Lucas

According to his obituary in the British Medical Journal, William Freer Lucas was just 23 years old and acting resident medical officer at the Middlesex Hospital when he died. He had been a promising young man: successful at school, he went on to study medicine at the University of London before entering the Middlesex Hospital in 1888 where he continued to win scholarships and prizes. He was also an athlete and 'his gentlemanly bearing, uprightness, and candour gained for him many friends.'

However, Lucas's early promise was cut short by his death from diphtheria. Today, most of us have been vaccinated against this highly-infectious disease which is spread primarily by coughs and sneezes. It can also be treated by antibiotics. With neither vaccination nor antibiotic treatment available in the nineteenth century, though, the disease was a frequent killer. In severe cases, a grey-white film would develop in the throat and block the airway, and an operation to relieve breathing was the only treatment. 

It was just such a severe case that Lucas treated in 1893. While he was administering chloroform during a tracheotomy operation on a child with diphtheria, the patient coughed into his face. Lucas nonetheless proceeded with the operation. Four days later, he too had diphtheria which killed him within 10 days.

Lucas's memorial service (held at the hospital chapel, almost all that now survives of the Middlesex Hospital buidlings) and his burial were well attended by his medical colleagues. The BMJ published a memorial poem written by 'one who was well acquainted with Mr Lucas'; since it is in Latin, I won't reproduce it here. The Freer Lucas Scholarship for medical students at Middlesex Hospital was also endowed by his parents a few years later.

His plaque on the Watts Memorial states: