Tuesday 27 September 2016

C a mistake?

Dulwich is full of historical details, but here are a couple of letter Cs which may give you pause.

The first is on the former Grammar School of the College of God's Gift. A smaller building than the name might suggest, it was established in 1842 to educate 60 poor boys. This was paid for by the charitable foundation established by the eminent actor (and contemporary of Shakespeare) Edward Alleyne - also responsible for the rather grander Dulwich College. The grammar school building was designed by Sir Charles Barry, who is rather better known for the Houses of Parliament

Since the Houses of Parliament and the remodelling of Trafalgar Square were both underway while the school was built, perhaps Barry didn't pay a great deal of attention to its execution. That might explain how a mistake went unnoticed in the lettering above the door: the capital C on 'College' and D of 'Dulwich' have been swapped and reversed!

Several decades later, North Dulwich Station was built by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, with bridge attached; the architect was Barry's son, Charles Barry Jnr. On the bridge are fine plaques commemorating this, and it appears the C/D confusion has happened again. Shouldn't that be '1866 AD'?

In fact, it shouldn't. This time, the letters are quite correct as they stand not for anno domini but for Alleyn's College (Dulwich College), who owned the land


Monday 19 September 2016

Ghost signs (123): Light Capsules

The dilemma of ghost sign restoration is beautifully resolved in Light Capsules, a collaboration between designer and artist Craig Winslow and Sam Roberts of Ghostsigns. For a few hours, faded signs are brought back to vivid life - by projections, which allow the sign to be both restored and untouched. It's quite an experience to see. 

Light Capsules runs all week, over a number of different venues, from 6-8pm each evening. Wednesday's event is a little different, as signs from around the world will be projected onto a blank wall - accompanied by cocktails and live lettering demonstrations.

Part of the London Design Festival, Light Capsules also coincides with the launch of the Ghostsigns Tours App, available for iPhone and Android. It currently features a walking tour of Bankside, with Stoke Newington soon to be added.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Electrical Moderne

Tucked behind a residential street in Woking is a small concrete building. It has an Art Deco look, not unattractive but not obviously exciting. 

However, the interior is a very different matter. Built in 1936, this very functional space created by Swedish firm ASEA is full of Moderne style. Indeed, at this period Southern had adopted Streamline Moderne as its house style - as can also be seen at nearby Woking Station.

We are in Southern Railway's electrical control room, built as part of their programme of electrification. It continued in use until the 1990s, its fabulous features intact. Even the floors are elegant, with green and black bands at the edges.

The wall panels combine a Deco colour scheme and stylish silver strips with track diagrams. Now that the railway was electrified, operators needed to ensure that the electrical supply was available when trains were running and switched off while work was being carried out. Lights indicated the status of the supply, bakelite switches allowed it to be controlled. 

Caps were placed over switches when the supply was off, so that it couldn't be switched back on unthinkingly. 

The telephone exchange at the main desk brought information in and out. This original control desk has acquired some more modern paraphernalia: several generations of telephones can be seen here. 

The four uplighters running along the centre of the oval room are copper and cast iron. They don't just look lovely: combined with the curved ceiling, they ensure that light is even and there are no obscuring shadows. Those same curves also enhanced the acoustics of the room, so that one operator could easily hear the other even when they worked at opposite ends. (With a number of visitors and guides in the room, it was rather noisy!)

Outside the control room is another treat, albeit more functional than fancy. The corridors leading to the entrance are lined with the backs of those glamorous control boards, electro-mechanical switchgear on view. 

Of Southern's original five control rooms, Woking alone survives intact. It is now listed, so should be surprising visitors well into the future - and reminding us that it was not only the Victorians who invested so much care into the appearance of industrial spaces. 

Woking Electrical Control Room is open to the public on the annual Heritage Open Days. Thanks to IanVisits for highlighting it! 

There are more of my photos on Flickr

Wednesday 14 September 2016

Open House inspiration

Spoiled for choice by the 750 buildings welcoming visitors on Saturday and Sunday for Open House London? I'm not about to attempt a definitive guide or authoritative list of what to see, but here are some of the visits I enjoyed in previous years, loosely themed. All are open this year and don't require pre-booking: be inspired!

Livery halls

Ever wondered what goes on behind the - often rather impressive - closed doors of the City livery companies? Some I've visited with the wonderful London Historians will be opening.  Try the original home of copyright enforcerment, Stationers' Hall with its charming, 'hidden' garden (open Sunday); or Drapers' Hall, built on the site of Thomas Cromwell's mansion after his execution in the 1540s. It has been rebuilt since, after the Great Fire and more recently in 1772; the opulent interiors are largely Victorian - and lit by elaborate chandeliers. (Open Sunday.)

A late eighteenth century building in the City of London has its origins in sixteenth-century Deptford. It's not a livery hall, but Trinity House is responsible for our lighthouses, safety of shipping, and the welfare of seafarers. Not only is this a fine period interior, restored in the 1950s after suffering bomb damage during the Second World War, but it also contains plenty of sea-related details including model ships and lighthouses. (Open Saturday.)

Social history

If you'd prefer to learn about everyday lives, then Open House certainly isn't just about grand buildings.

See the work of Roman London's cowboy builders - and some rather good ones - at the intriguing Billingsgate House and Baths (open both days). Learn how the Romans bathed; ponder whether this was a wealthy villa or a mansio (inn).

Definitely not for the wealthy, London's almshouses offered homes for the needy (albeit with conditions to be met and plenty of rules attached). There are lovely examples of such 17th-century philanthropy at Trinity Hospital, Greenwich's riverside almshouses (open Saturday), or the restored and repurposed chapel of Lewisham's Merchant Taylors' Almshouses (open both afternoons).
By contrast, the social housing on Poplar's Lansbury Estate represents the ideals of post-war Britain. It was one of the attractions at the 1951 Festival of Britain, whose presence is still felt around the estate. Its focal point is the eccentric 'practical folly' of a clocktower in Chrisp Street Market (open both days).

Beyond housing, get close to the history of the Jewish East End in Sandys Row Synagogue - the oldest surviving Ashkenazi synagogue in London and still active today. (Open Sunday.) Potentially more macabre is the Old Mortuary in Rotherhithe - but thanks to its newer role as home to the venerable Time and Talents association, it's a surprisingly welcoming place in which to learn about the grim history of bodies in the Thames. (Open both days.)

Perhaps more cultural than social, but physically a near-neighbour to the Old Mortuary, is the magical Sands Films (although its building - a former granary - and the contents of its Rotherhithe Picture Research Library also justify its place here). Sands Films are a production company, film studio, and especially a costumiers for film, theatre, opera and ballet - exploring their amazing workshops and racks of extraordinary costumes is a very special experience. Highly recommended, and open both days.

Unexpected views

Hidden beneath a main road and behind locked gates, the stunning colours and patterns of the Crystal Palace Subway come as a wonderful surprise. This year, the fantastical foot tunnel doesn't require pre-booking, so you can relive the experience of arriving at the Crystal Palace through this marvelous bit of hidden Victoriana. (Open both days.)

Rather less lovely, the Seager Distillery Tower does however offer unbeatable views across Deptford and far beyond. Tours run on Saturday and Sunday.

The 'star'

Some buildings are consistently popular, and usually for good reason. Expect to queue if you want to visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office - but you'll forget your aching feet when you see its fantastic interior. Highlights are the Durbar Court and Locarno Suite, but there's eye-catching ornamentation everywhere. (Open Sunday.)

Saturday 10 September 2016

Bovril Castle

Conveniently close to central London, with a village ambience and select developments, Dulwich appealed to many nineteenth-century industrialists. Some had famous names: Bessemer gave his to a steel process, Eno to fruit salts - made in New Cross. John Lawson Johnston is less obviously linked to his product - but his nickname became 'Mr Bovril'. 

Johnston was born in Scotland, studied chemistry, and became an apprentice butcher. He successfully took over and expanded his uncle's butchery business, before emigrating to Canada; in 1874, he won a large contract to supply the French army with preserved beef. He had been producing a beef glaze (concentrated stock in a long-lasting jelly) for years, but was now inspired to produce a semi-liquid version which he called Bovril

In 1884, Johnston sold his Canadian business and returned to Britain. His company moved between Old Street and Farringdon, and enjoyed such success that in 1892 he could buy the Georgian Kingswood House in Dulwich. 

However, as a wealthy Scot, he decided that what was really needed was a faux-baronial, stone-clad mansion - and set about spending £10,000 on creating it. (Although that's more like a million pounds in today's money, it was presumably spare change to Johnston who would sell Bovril for £2 million a few years later.) The transformed house was inevitably nicknamed 'Bovril Castle'. 

Eight years after he bought his 'Castle', Johnston died on his yacht in Cannes. The house has survived; since the 1950s, it has been owned by the Council and holds a library serving the housing estate built in its former grounds. Many of the other rooms are now used for functions and events. 

I visited with the Victorian Society. Kingswood House will be open on Sunday 18 September for Open House London.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Uncovered on Middlesex Street

Until recently, 56 Middlesex Street, E1 looked something like this (courtesy of Google Streetview. Covered in bright merchandise, its cheap and cheerful facade was fairly typical for a shop just off Petticoat Lane.

When I went by again a couple of weeks ago, it had changed significantly. The clothes shop is gone, work is being done, and a vintage sign has been exposed.

You can also spot another treat: a similarly vintage burglar alarm. It's Rely-a-Bell, but presumably no longer reliable.

However, the change in appearance isn't the only indication of the area's changing nature. Cross over to the shop door, and a sign shows that it is in fact a shop no longer. It is to reopen as offices.