Friday 20 January 2017

Auber, fading underground wonder

Auber station, just behind the Paris Opera, serves the RER (local railway): you can catch a train from here to Disneyland. However, there's little magic and sparkle on view. 

The gloomy lighting, dated styling, and general air of mild decay belie this station's history. When it opened in 1971, it was one of the largest and most advanced underground stations in the world. If such size seems excessive for a single railway line with a maximum of thirty trains an hour, it's partly because tunnels also link the RER station to another, Haussmann-Saint Lazare, as well as three nearby Metro stations, and the mainline Saint Lazare station. However, the train hall and ticket hall themselves are enormous: the train hall is 225 metres long and 24 metres wide. There are 73 escalators, 15 lifts, and 4 km of tunnels.

Popular Science, August 1972

In 1972, Popular Science was enthusiastic about 'one of three stations operating to date in a visionary new super-subway system.' It enthused about this 'veritable subterranean cathedral' with its cutting-edge technology: 
I bought a ticket at a remarkable vending machine whose mini-computer does most of the thinking for harassed travellers. The RER network is pictorially represented with push-buttons; another 10-button row selects ticket categories - single, return, etc. After you push two buttons, the mini-computer calculates the fare and displays it with electronic digital readouts. You then drop coins in the appropriate slots or insert a 10-franc note in a scanner. The machine prints your ticket on a blank card with magnetic coding carrying up to 60 bits of information.
Popular Science, August 1972: ticket machine, Auber

The interior didn't rely on its scale for effect. It also had some eye-catching features, particularly the 'igloo domes' which housed shops, a bank, and a travel agency. They are long gone, sadly.

Popular Science, August 1972: ticket barriers and igloo domes

The difficulties of building such a large underground space below central Paris can be imagined. After all, sewers, a Metro line, the historical Opera building, and some of Paris' most prestigious department stores are immediately above. To make matters worse, the ground here is particularly wet - and indeed, it's water ingress which accounts for much of the dank, stained appearance of the station today. The station of the future has lost its shine.

I was taking the RER to some rather more beautiful examples of innovative engineering: the former Menier Chocolate Factory at Noisiel, with its extraordinary mill.

Monday 16 January 2017

A Breton chapel

Small chapels are liberally scattered around Brittany; many villages have several. They are testament not only to the importance of faith in the region's history but also to the relative isolation of many small communities in the days before modern transport infrastructure. Many also incorporate pre-Christian beliefs about the healing powers of springs or stones: Brittany is thus famous for its abundance of healing saints, many not recognised by Rome.

The modest parish of Ereac in the Cotes d'Armor had 900 inhabitants at the end of the eighteenth century, and 1,500 at its peak in 1890. Nonetheless, it has two chapels - plus a third destroyed in the early nineteenth century and a fourth lost in the 1870s - in addition to its parish church. This one is the Chapelle des Rothouers, consecrated in 1858 and flanked by two Japanese cedars. It replaced an earlier one completed in 1768, which had stood a little to the south and fell into ruin following the French Revolution. (There may even have been an earlier one standing before that.)

The chapel used to have a statue, Our Lady of Rothouers, which has now been moved to the church. The statue in front of the door is a more recent work by a local artist. Francis Guinard was born in a nearby village and studied art in Rennes before moving to Paris in 1931; shortly after he returned to live in the area, his granite statue of Mary and child was placed here to mark the chapel's centenary in 1958.

The site also housed a miraculous fountain - these, too, are common in Brittany. It has largely dried up and disappeared, however. 

It may not be especially historical or exciting in its own right, then, but the Chapelle des Rothouers tells an important story all the same. It is one of thousands such chapels which were a central part of Breton life and a link with its land and ancient past, and which remain a central part of its social and physical landscape today.

Friday 13 January 2017

Ghost signs (127): Moorgate Station

Moorgate Station is being stripped and retiled, and for the most part the walls are strangely bare - with an intriguing exception. By the ticket barriers for the Stevenage trains, among the tiles and signs, a painted advertisement from the past peeks out. 

We can make out some words: 'The National Building Society', and a hint of 'founded' at the bottom. It's apt: the National Building Society was based in Moorgate. It had been founded in 1849, as the National Freehold Land and Building Society, by three Liberal MPs; by 1944, when it merged with Abbey Road to form the Abbey National, it was the sixth largest British building society. 

Mutual building societies, owned by their members, began in the late eighteenth century; they boomed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but legislative changes saw most of them become limited companies in the 1990s. The first building society to demutualise, the Abbey National became a bank in 1989. Now, the Abbey National is also gone, submerged into Santander. And this little bit of history may soon go, too - but for the moment, it offers a glimpse of this important strand of our financial past.

Tuesday 10 January 2017

Engineers' Art Nouveau


Almost a century after they were established, TJ Boulting & Sons adorned their new premises with richly-coloured, Art Nouveau signs. The elegant colours and flowing forms seem ill-matched to a business as prosaic as a 'range and stove manufactory', 'sanitary and hot water engineers', and 'gas & electrical engineers'. Ornamental Passions, in taking a look at ornamentation beyond the mosaics, suggests that this was the showroom rather than the manufactory. 

The signs date the firm's foundation to 1808; back then, it was known as 'John Boulting & Son' (John name of its founder and next two owners). Only in 1879 did it become TJ Boulting & Sons, when Thomas John - former partner of the third John - took it over. It seems that Thomas's son Percy was the driving force between these new premises; in his twenties when they were built, and possibly with some architectural training, he was eager to see them in the latest style. 

The building is the work of Herbert Fuller-Clark, also responsible for the Art Nouveau delight that is the Black Friar pub.The Boultings apparently occupied their premises until the 1960s. Today, the premises house an art and photography publisher, Trolley Books, and their gallery - which has, very nicely, kept the name TJ Boulting

Friday 6 January 2017

Remember the Poor's Box

Before the National Health Service ensured free medical treatment for all, the sick were often dependent upon charity. The wealthy hospital of St Bartholemew's in Smithfield had Crown endowments given when Henry VIII refounded it after the Dissolution, as well as various bequests to fund its work, but public giving to help the impoverished was also encouraged.

Wealthier philanthropists could subscribe to bodies such as Deptford's Kent Dispensary, giving relatively large amounts of money in return for the ability to recommend patients. Those of less commitment or more slender means could simply put money into a hospital poor box. Such boxes had a history at least as old as Bart's Hospital's refoundation: legislation of 1536 required them to be placed in every church, and their use soon spread to other places including hospitals. Charitable donations to the poor were encouraged by both church and state.

Some of the finest survivals are still in situ, in the Henry VIII Gate of St Bartholomew's Hospital. These red boxes, bearing the message 'Remember the Poor's Box', are believed to date from the early nineteenth century. 

Tuesday 3 January 2017

Ghost signs (126): Gosta Green

One frosty morning, walking across the campus of Birmingham's Aston University, I nearly slipped over as this ghost sign distracted my attention from the icy ground. Loss of dignity aside, what a great start to the day! 

The sign is on the end wall of the Gosta Green pub, and clearly pre-dates the windows as well as the name sign now partly obscuring it.Enough remains visible for us to make out the words 'Holt Brewery Co Ltd - Brewers of ... Malt Ales & Stouts, Importers of Wines...' Flickr comes to our rescue here: an earlier photo shows that the missing word is 'Pure Malt Ales'.

Not to be confused with Holt's of Manchester (still brewing today), the Holt Brewery Company was founded in Aston in 1887, taking over Henry Fulford's brewery. They continued to acquire other breweries, as well as 250 pubs, but were themselves taken over by Ansells in 1934. Its logo, a red squirrel, survived in Ansells' beer labels. 

Along with this ghost sign, another intriguing trace left by the brewery is its black book of 'habitual drunkards', discussed on Wayward Women. History can survive in unexpected ways!