Thursday 31 December 2015

Top ten of 2015

Happy new year! It's time to look back on the most popular posts of 2015 with a top ten of those published during the year, and a top five of all-time favourites. 

Top ten of the year
Posts featuring London unsurprisingly dominated in popularity - but Glastonbury and Wells in Somerset also made a strong showing! 

Livery halls were popular this year (not coincidentally, they were also the main them of London Historians' events programme). Our first entry, at number ten, is Stationers' Hall;  I also visited Vintners' Hall - and another, which we'll see higher up the list. 

Number nine was the very atmospheric Tower of London by night. We stay with the Thames for a mysterious clay pipe bowl at number eight: just what does it depict? 

Far outside London, it's a derelict factory site in Glastonbury which takes seventh place. (No doubt it's the photo of my Dad in his fashionable youth which deserves the credit!). And one place ahead is nearby Wells Cathedral's incredibly old and beautiful staircase.

We're back in the city for number five. Deep, deep in the city: the Crossrail dig at Liverpool Street allowed archaeologists to explore the Bedlam burial ground, and to go down to Roman levels. I got to see some beautiful finds - and one slightly lewd one.

The extraordinary, eerie Redsands Fort in the Thames Estuary was in fourth place. Regular boat trips are now available, and plans are being made for their future: good news for London history enthusiasts, given their important role in protecting the capital during World War II. 

Third place goes to another livery hall, the grand and beautiful Drapers' Hall.

In second place is an unusual visit to City Lock on the Regent's Canal. Thanks to maintenance work, it was emptied and dry, so this is a look around inside in a way that's rarely possible. More conventional in access, but a stunning and relatively little-known jewel of a gallery, is Two Temple Place. Subject of this year's most popular post, it's a fabulous late-Victorian house now used for an annual show highlighting publicly-owned collections from around the UK. The next exhibition opens on 30 January: make a note in that brand-new diary now!

And an honourable mention for the most popular ghost sign of the year (which took eleventh place). Along with some rather fine shop signage, a Glastonbury sign reminds us of the days when snail mail ruled!

Finally, the pages have also been very popular, especially Unusual London Places to Visit. Not far behind are those dedicated to Postman's Park and to ghost signs; but even the rather niche page on Deptford Power Station, 1912 has attracted a growing number of readers this year.

All-time top five

Which posts have been most popular over the life of the blog? The most surprising result for me was the reminder that I began it as long ago as 2008!

In fifth place is the intriguing Stone House on Lewisham Way. Completely different to its neigbhours, this Palladian villa is usually hidden behind garden walls but does let in visitors for Open House Weekend. For the rest of the year, you can sneak a glimpse from the top deck of the bus!

One place ahead is a Bridgwater ghost sign - though I've linked not to the original post but to an updated account, which not only sees its wording fully deciphered but also dates it to within a couple of years! 

Places three and two take us back to London. Perhaps incongruously for a site celebrating the city, these show its ugly side. First, the physical ugliness of an appalling piece of facadism; then the choking pollution of a very pedestrian-unfriendly Thames crossing. Rotherhithe Tunnel - I walked it so you don't have to...

The most popular post is, slightly mysteriously, one on the creepy catacombs of Paris. I suspect that this owes less to the content than to image searches for 'skulls'.

And on that cheery note, my very best wishes for 2016!

Tuesday 29 December 2015

Blitz Remembered

Tonight is the 75th anniversary of the 'Second Great Fire of London', an intense bombing raid on 29 December 1940 which seriously threatened St Paul's Cathedral. In the biggest Blitz raid of World War II, a mixture of incendiary bombs and high explosives devastated much of the City; only through enormous effort was the cathedral itself saved. Several hundred volunteer firewatchers, many of them architects who understood the structure, fought the blazes on its roof.

Many incendiaries landed on the cathedral, some penetrating into the building and others lodging in roof timbers. One landed on the dome, melting part of the lead roof before falling to the Stone Gallery where it could be extinguished. As firefighters attempted to extinguish the blazes with the help of water and sand bags, all external water supplies were used up, and stored water had to be relied upon. The Massey Shaw played a crucial role in pumping water from the Thames - although a low tide hampered the use of fire boats for much of the night.

She and a number of vintage fire appliances returned to the City today. In events around St Paul's and Dowgate Fire Station, they marked the anniversary of that terrible night. 

Saving the cathedral was vital. It was a symbol, both to Londoners and to others including the United States, of Britain's ability to withstand the Blitz. However, the cost was enormous. Over 160 civilians and 14 firefighters died that night, and the fires were so extensive and intense that they formed a huge firestorm. Among the buildings destroyed were the Guildhall's Great Hall, livery halls, and churches. St Paul's Churchyard and Paternoster Row, a centre of the printing industry, were set ablaze; today a memorial to the destroyed books stands in Paternoster Square. 

There is a detailed and well-illustrated account of the events of that night at St Paul's on A London Inheritance.

Sunday 27 December 2015

Postman's Park (37): Samuel Lowdell

Much about Samuel Lowdell's death follows a familiar pattern for the Watts Memorial cases, but there is also a rather odd feature.

Lowdell was a 24-year-old bargeman who lived in Bow Common. (Bargemen carried goods on the river, while watermen carried people.) He worked on a barge called the William and Mary, and jumped off it to rescue a boy who had fallen into the river. However, although he was a good swimmer, he was never seen alive again: it seems he got trapped under a boat moored alongside. More happily, the boy was saved by the crew of another boat.

His body was found about a month later by James Law at Battle Bridge Stairs, near London Bridge. Law, a waterman, spotted the body in the water and towed it ashore where it was identified as Lowdell, a man who had saved several other people from drowning in the past. The state of the body was described at the inquest: tattoos on the arms, a broken nose caused after death, and the trousers down below the knees. However, nothing more seems to have been said about the strange state of his dress; it may have been that he was attempting to remove his waterlogged clothing as he drowned. 

The Royal Humane Society sent an award to Lowdell's widow.


Wednesday 23 December 2015

Housing Westminster's working class

Walk down Page Street, Pimlico, and it's hard to miss the striking buildings of the Grosvenor Estate. More surprising than their checkerboard facades is the architect responsible for them: Edward Lutyens. 

Best-known for his work on country houses and gardens, and City institutions, how did Lutyens come to be working on a social housing project? The answer is that the Duke of Westminster insisted: he donated the land for this development while Lutyens was his consulting architect on Grosvenor House. The new housing was built between 1929 and 1935. 

Beyond their distinctive end walls, the low-rise flats are arranged around three sides of a courtyard, with open galleries overlooking it. On the fourth, entrance side are small pavilions or gatehouses - like the decorative details on the main blocks, they are rather more classical in style (and thus typical of Lutyens) than the boldly geometric buildings themselves, with their contrasting Portland cement and grey brick. 

It was a different feature of these homes which drew attention in 1990. The Duke of Westminster's gift of land to Westminster Council, in return for a peppercorn rent, stipulated that the dwellings be "for the working classes". However, the Conservative council wanted to sell the leaseholds and in order to enable this, argued that the term "working class" no longer had meaning. The Duke challenged this view in court; the judge agreed that the term was not obsolete and the condition remained valid. The council's dubious approach to selling social housing later erupted into the "homes for votes" scandal.

Sunday 20 December 2015

Postman's Park (36): quicksand

Arthur Strange was employed as a carman (delivery driver) by Whiteley’s in London, one of 6,000 employees of the department store which offered a delivery service up to 25 miles. Mark Tomlinson was an assistant at Nottingham Borough Asylum. However, both had connections to Kirton Holme in Lincolnshire: Tomlinson had been born there, and his family still lived there. His cousin Ida Mumford (herself a Londoner) was engaged to Strange.

On a visit to Lincolnshire, the three of them went with the Tomlinson family's housekeeper, Ida Clayton, to a popular but isolated bathing spot near the neighbouring village of Kirton Skeldyke. The area is one of salt marsh, with dangers including patches of quicksand - sand and clay which presents the appearance of solid ground but is in fact highly unstable due to salt water below the surface. Once stepped on, it becomes liquid and almost impossible to escape.

When the two young women went paddling in the river they fell into a deep ‘hole’ of quicksand. Strange and Tomlinson attempted a rescue but although Strange was initially able to hold onto the women, he soon followed Tomlinson who had sunk immediately. All four were drowned.

At the inquest, the coroner commented that the two men 'did a most noble duty and died a noble death'. Their efforts were later commemorated on the Watts Memorial:


Tuesday 15 December 2015

Down in Down Street

The signage may say 'mini mart', but the ox-blood red tiling and distinctive half-moon windows shout 'Leslie Green-designed Underground station.' And they're telling the truth: this is the former Down Street station, just off Piccadilly. 

Imagine you are choosing the site for an Underground station. What factors might you consider? For the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway in 1907, there were two. First, they wanted a station in Mayfair. Second, they had a limited budget. The consequence was a station within a short walk of both Dover Street (Green Park) and Hyde Park Corner stations, in an area where the wealthy residents didn't use much public transport, and which was stuck around the corner from the expensive main thoroughfare, on a much quieter side street.

Opening later than the rest of the Piccadilly Line probably didn't help: changes in station layout demanded by the Board of Trade had delayed it by three months. Passengers reached the platforms by lifts and long passageways, slower than the escalator access latterly offered by its neighbours. The surprise is less that Down Street closed in 1932 than that it lasted for 25 years before closing.  

However, Down Street didn't stay empty for long. Its new incarnation would see some unlikely features for an underground station: signs pointing to offices; bathrooms and dormitories; and a telephone exchange. 

As Britain prepared for the Second World War, the government was well aware of the risk of aerial bombing. It therefore sought deep shelter for crucial functions, and Down Street was chosen to house the Railway Executive Committee (REC). This vital body was in charge of the operation of Britain's railways, ensuring freight, munitions, and personnel could be moved around the country. Its membership included the chairmen of the 'Big Four' railway companies, as well as Frank Pick representing the London Passenger Transport Board.

Where passengers once walked to and from their trains, yellow paint and false ceilings helped create offices, dormitories, executive bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens: all amenities required for the staffing of the emergency headquarters for 24-hour operation. Food and furnishings came from the railway hotels. The transformation of the platforms into offices and corridors resulted in some rather narrow spaces.

Crucial to the REC's operations was its telephone exchange, much of which is still in place. It had fifty phone lines, impressive for the period, and a teletype machine.

Secrecy was maintained carefully; even post was delivered to another address and brought here by despatch riders. The REC's activities were carefully screened from passing tube trains. Senior workers were able to hail a tube train from a small section of platform; this was carefully managed so that as far as ordinary passengers could tell, they were simply stopped at a red signal. The Down Street passenger would enter and exit the driver's cab.

Down Street was also the location for Cabinet meetings until the Cabinet War Rooms were completed (thanks to Churchill's aversion to the Paddock shelter). The Prime Minister was not eager to resort to underground shelter, but the supplies of champagne, cigars and caviar from railway hotels no doubt helped console him! 

Amenities were divided into three categories: the executive facilities, women's, and 'other workers'. Executives got to enjoy textured wallpapers, still visible today!

Today, some wartime alterations are themselves worn away, revealing the original features underneath. Perhaps most distinctive is the tiling: each Leslie Green-designed station had its own colour scheme so that illiterate passengers could recognise their stop.  The tiles were concealed under yellow paint; they are now re-emerging, along with some of the original signage. 

Other details typical of Green's stations never went away, although they were painted in the ubiquitous (and now-peeling) yellow. 

Today, Down Street provides ventilation and an emergency exit for the Piccadilly Line. In other words, usually you would hope not to see inside! However, there have been guided tours in recent weeks as part of the London Transport Museum's Hidden London programme of events - with more to come next year. 

There are more photos on Flickr.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Postman's Park (35): Herbert Maconaghu

One of the side-effects of Britain's activities in India was that the children of those who worked there often spent much of their childhood several continents away from their parents. Lengthy sea voyages meant that a short visit was out of the question, so other ways of filling the school holidays had to be found. Herbert Maconoghu and six schoolmates were sent to the seaside at Croyde in Devon, where they stayed with a woman for the summer break.

It must have seemed an idyllic time. Croyde is an attractive village complete with thatched cottages and gentle, green hills behind. The bay has sandy beaches and dunes: every day, the boys would go to the same bathing spot to swim.

However, after some weeks, a morning bathe went tragically wrong. This may have been due to the changing tides: strong rips can form in Croyde Bay at low tide in particular. Some of the boys were swept out by the current, and two got into real difficulties. Pausing only to shout to a companion, 'You save one boy and I'll save the other', Maconoghu swam out to the rescue. However, his effort was in vain: the two struggling boys and Maconoghu all drowned.


Friday 11 December 2015

Basilica's Bestiary

The Basilica of Saint Denis in northern Paris, considered the first Gothic church, is most famous as the resting-place of France's kings and queens. All but three of them were buried there - although most of the remains are missing, taken out and reburied in a mass grave during the Revolution. The tombs, however, survived. During their restoration, the Bourbon monarchs not only revived this tradition but also brought the sparse supposed remains of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette for burial here.

On the tombs are not only many royal effigies, but also an assortment of animals.

Most popular are lions, some of whom seem to have abandoned their own regal status in favour of very cat-like pleasure in the eternal back rubs they are now receiving.


Dogs were another popular choice, and many are in pairs - sharing or squabbling over bones like siblings with toys. 

There are some more unusual ones, too. Charles, Duc d'Orleans and Philippe, Comte de Vertus appear to have joined forces with an armadillo-dog and a stoat!