Sunday 30 July 2017

Hackney's tin tabernacle

When a Presbyterian congregation in Shrubland Road, E8 built their chapel in 1858, it is unlikely they thought it would still be standing today - for the building is a 'tin tabernacle' made of corrugated iron. Bought by mail order and shipped worldwide, such buildings were usually intended as a cheap and short-term way of accommodating people, typically while a more permanent structure was built. 

The Shrubland Road chapel is reputed to be the oldest in Britain. The popularity of tin tabernacles was just beginning - by 1890, William Morris was condemning them as 'spreading like a pestilence' - and given their nature, most have not survived. Like its more permanent counterparts, the chapel has gothic windows and even a small 'steeple'. The proportions feel a little odd: that's because the chapel is more or less square, and able to hold 500 people. 

Although it was firmly closed when I visited, the listing details tell us that inside, there is a panelled lobby; wooden rafters and pews; a reading platform with carved pulpit; and organ. (You can also get a slightly wobbly glimpse inside on some YouTube videos of worship.)

The manufacturers were Tupper & Co of Moorgate, London (their factories were in Limehouse and Birmingham). Other churches built that same year included one for export to Rangoon; under its former name Tupper & Carr, the company had also manufactured telegraph cable laid in the Mediterranean. Their move into buildings saw them advertise houses and sheds as well as churches. An 1862 advertisement published in New Zealand boasted that they could 'supply, properly packed for Shipment, with all necessary drawings and instructions for erection abroad, every description of Iron Roofing, Iron Sheds, Stores, Houses, Churches, &c.; these are temporarily erected at the Iron Roofing Works; in London, where they can be inspected prior to shipment.' Indeed, it went on, Tupper's were 'well known in the Australian, Cape, East and West Indian, and most Foreign Markets, as the best and cheapest.' 

The Hackney chapel cost between £1,200 and £1,300: about £60,000 or so at today's values. (Four years later, Lurganboy in Ireland got their smaller, simpler chapel of ease for just £350.) That's a fairly substantial amount of money, but a lot less than a permanent building would cost. It's easy to understand the appeal of such construction to less affluent or established congregations. Even better, it apparently only took ten weeks to build. 

This unassuming chapel is a significant piece of social history, then. However, the building's current position seems uncertain. Last year, it was reported that owners The Site of Eternal Life Church were selling it at auction for at least £1.7 million. (It had already been on the market for several years.) The pricing seemed optimistic, since it is Grade II listed and perhaps not the easiest type of building to convert into the suggested nursery or cinema; the chapel did not sell. A community use might be more appropriate, but less lucrative. It is currently on the Historic England 'At Risk' register, its status given as 'in need of some repair and discussions are ongoing with the owner.' Let's hope that the outcome for this rare survivor is positive. 

Wednesday 26 July 2017

Dreaming of Dinan

One of the loveliest towns in Brittany, Dinan has historic ramparts, half-timbered houses, and a vertiginous descent to the port below. While it has plenty of galleries, gift shops, restaurants and bars, the best thing to do here is to wander the mediaeval streets. 

The Place des Merciers, at the centre of the town, is a jumble of half-timbered buildings, some dating back to the fifteenth century.

The Saint-Sauveur Basilica was founded in the twelfth century, but completely remodelled in the sixteenth and seventeenth. After a short spell as a Temple of Reason during the Revolution, it was re-dedicated in 1801. The promotion from church to basilica came in 1954.

The hilltop town is protected by mediaeval ramparts and a castle (now the museum). As Dinan lost strategic importance, new gates were added in the seventeenth century and maintenance of the walls was neglected. They were briefly pressed back into service during the Revolution, but have enjoyed a more peaceful existence ever since. The most extensive still surviving in Brittany, the ramparts are now walked by tourists and townspeople rather than soldiers. 

Although the newer Rue du Port offers a long and relatively gentle route down to the port, the traditional roads are much steeper.

Many travellers now bypass the descent altogether. A viaduct takes motorists straight over the valley to Lanvallay, sparing them the narrow stone streets and bridge, as well as the sharp inclines. It was built in 1852 by engineer Jules Fessard, and is 250 metres long and 50 metres high. Combined with the arrival of the railway in 1879, it contributed to the port's decline. The growth in size of ships was the final straw.

Before the rise of road and rail, the river Rance had been the main route for goods to enter and leave the town. It's difficult today to imagine a busy commercial port, central to the then-thriving cloth industry.

Sunday 23 July 2017

Sutton House: a queer place

An atypical National Trust property, Sutton House in Hackney makes an extraordinary launching point for arts and events. 

It is, like so many of the Trust's houses, the creation of a wealthy family. We are in the Tudor home of Sir Ralph Sadler, confidant of Thomas Cromwell and Secretary of State to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. There are portraits in oils, clocks and candlesticks, wood-panelled walls. 

However, it also has a squatters' mural, Edwardian graffiti, and bare bricks. Far from staying in the same family for centuries, Sutton House has enjoyed many incarnations. Its surviving Tudor features overlap with alterations from its times as home to merchants and weavers, a boys' school, a girls' school, union offices and a squat - even the facade is a Georgian makeover. 

With fewer original furnishings to safeguard, and with some rooms fairly bare and robust, the house can be used and explored, not just admired. It is home to community groups, contemporary art, and a wide range of activities: an energetic and exciting property. 

This year, the theme is Sutton House Queered, part of the Trust's Prejudice and Pride programme. Marking fifty years since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts, the programme brings to light LGBT histories which are often a fundamental, if not always expressed, part of its properties' past. A guidebook by historians Alison Oram and Matt Cook introduces some of these histories.

For example, Kingston Lacy in Dorset is celebrated for its art collection, created by William John Bankes. He sent may of the pieces home from exile in France and Italy, where he had fled to avoid trial and possible execution for 'indecency' with a guardsman. Smallhythe Place, bought by actress Ellen Terry, was later the home of her daughter Edy Craig and her female partners Chris St John and Tony Atwood. And National Trust founder Octavia Hill had passionate friendships with other women including Harriot Yorke, with whom she lived for over three decades until her death. 

We can even explore those histories without having to travel around the country, thanks to a new series of podcasts. Its six episodes feature a host of stories, told by historians, writers and artists, and presented by Clare Balding. The first is already available, with more to follow weekly. Meanwhile, films are being created by artists-in-residence Simona Piantieri and Michele D'Acosta, including one of the Caravan Club

But where better for Londoners to begin our explorations than here, in Hackney's oldest house? 

Friday 21 July 2017

Stations closed

At Oakwood Station on the Piccadilly Line is a sign full of useful information ... if a little out-of-date. Blake Hall underground station reduced its hours to zero in 1981, while Aldwych is perhaps the city's most famous ghost station. It's not all bad news, though: many of these stations are now open seven days a week. 

It is fair to say that Blake Hall may not have been much missed. It was located in Essex, and served as a goods yard until opening to Central Line passengers in 1966. However, few people lived nearby - even Blake Hall itself is a mile away - and the station became known as the Underground's least-used. Sunday services were withdrawn within six months of the station opening. Even weekdays were extraordinarily quiet, with 17 passengers a day by the time of closure. The station building is now a house; trains run through again - but do not stop - on the route of the Epping-Ongar Railway.

By contrast, Aldwych managed 600 passengers a day: quite a difference, but still very low for central London. It was a single-station spur off the Piccadilly Line, and a short walk from other stations; for some time, it had operated at peak hours only, as our sign advises. In the end, the cost of upgrading its lifts was too high to be justified by the number of users, and the station closed in 1994. It's now relatively frequently used for tours and filming; I haven't visited since its closure, but was one of the select few who used it occasionally when it was part of the Underground system!

Saturday 8 July 2017

Caravan Club, 1934

Pride weekend is an appropriate time for a visit to the Caravan Club. Open for just a few months in 1934, this lesbian and gay-friendly basement nightclub billed itself as 'London's Greatest Bohemian Rendezvous' with 'all night gaiety' and dancing.  

Its premature closure was the result of a police raid and court case. However, one fortunate side-effect of that is the survival in the National Archives of detailed records which allowed the club to be reconstructed earlier this year. For a month, the Caravan Club entertained guests in Endell Street again - although, under the more reputable auspices of the National Trust, no arrests followed. 

While the National Trust could announce the Caravan Club as an LGBTQ event, the original promoters had to be more circumspect. In a climate of social and legal hostility to same-sex relationships, such clubs relied upon code words such as 'Bohemian' and 'unconventional'. They attracted a substantial clientele: the tiny Caravan Club had over 2,000 visitors, 445 of them members. 

What did they get for their shilling-and-sixpence admission? The police reports and photographs give us some idea. Guests lounged on sofas; 'men were dancing with men and women were dancing with women'; some of the dancing was 'indecent' or 'very obscene'; there were men 'made up like women' and 'cuddling and embracing'. Draped fabrics and decorations gave the 'badly lighted' space a bohemian atmosphere at limited expense: prudent, since such clubs tended not to last long. 

Facsimile complaint letter

The Caravan Club was no exception: complaints from neighbours brought it to police attention. After observation by plainclothes officers (some posing as customers), it was raided and closed on 25 August 1934.  

According to the police, many of the women were of the 'prostitute class' and the men of the 'importuning type'. That was probably an exaggeration: the professions of those prosecuted following the police raid suggests a more varied clientele. They included artists, waiters, shop assistants and labourers. 

Those running the club were pretty colourful characters in their own right. Jack Neave was a former escapologist and strongman, known as 'Ironfoot Jack' because his right leg was shorter than his left and supported by a metal platform. Billy Reynolds was only 24 but had several previous convictions. They were prosecuted alongside their clients. 

103 people were arrested and brought before Bow Street Magistrates' Court. While no evidence was offered against 75 of them, the remainder returned for trial. Some were found not guilty; others received short sentences; but Neave and Reynolds were treated more harshly. Neave was sentenced to 20 months' hard labour and Reynolds to twelve months for keeping a disorderly house - 'a foul den of iniquity which was corrupting the youth of London', in the judge's words. 

Further listening: the records of the raid are held at the National Archives, who discuss it in a podcast

Wednesday 5 July 2017

Target: London

When V2 rockets were fired at London in the final years of the Second World War, the results were tragic. However, the capital was saved from a further destructive weapon, the V3. 

Replica V3 barrel

V stood for Vergeltungswaffe, or 'retribution weapon' rather than any particular type of missile (the V1 'doodlebugs' were flying bombs). V3s were cannon or superguns capable of firing from the Pas de Calais in Northern France to London. Multiple propellant charges along their barrels boosted the projectiles, each with an explosive charge of 55lb. 

Since the gun barrels would be over 400 feet long, fixed sites were needed with drifts to support each barrel. Near the V1 and V2 launch sites (including the Eperlecques Bunker), a new fortress was built underground at Mimoyecques. It was chosen for its proximity to London as well as being a safe distance from the coast, with its risks of naval and commando attacks. 

Construction began in 1943, with the work carried out by a mixture of German mineworkers and other labourers, many forced, including Russian prisoners of war and Polish deportees. 

A main central tunnel was reinforced with concrete and had a railway to carry equipment and supplies in and rubble out; the side tunnels and drifts were dug out of the chalk. 

The Allies became aware that there was a construction project. Their intelligence and aerial photos couldn't tell them exactly what the project was - they suspected another launch site for V2s - but it was enough for them to target the site. Aerial bombardments followed, and a raid by the RAF's 617 Squadron - of Dambusters fame - finally put the installation out of commission in July 1944. 

It used Tallboy bombs designed by Barnes Wallis, known as 'earthquake bombs'. These did not explode on impact like conventional bombs, but penetrated the ground at high speed before exploding, producing shockwaves which collapsed the tunnels. Each bomb weighed 12,000 lb and had to be dropped from specially-adapted Lancaster bomber planes.

It is not know how many people were killed underground by the bombing. A memorial inside the tunnels commemorates 'the thousands of victims of 18 nations of the 6 July 1944'; the museum guidebook suggests very low numbers. However, the V3 programme was stopped, and a few months later the Allied advance would see the Canadians take Mimoyecques without resistance: the many lives that could have been lost to its guns had been saved. 

When the true nature of Mimoyecques was established, Churchill said it 'might well have launched the most devastating attack of all on London.' If it had been completed and put into operation as originally planned, it would have been capable of firing 300 rounds per hour at London, targeted on Westminster and aimed at terrorising the population. In fact, there were significant technical problems with these weapons. Bombing and the Normandy landings curtailed the project before these could be overcome. 

After being used as a mushroom farm, the site was reopened as a museum in 1984: a place to remember those who died within its cold, damp tunnels; the airmen who died attacking it; and the terrible danger from which London was spared. 

More incongruously, it is also a nature reserve: home to a large bat colony including several rare species. For that reason, it is closed to visitors during the winter months.