Friday, 6 December 2019

Deptford, cradle of power generation

Think of power stations in London, and you probably think of the iconic Battersea towers; the reborn Bankside, now Tate Modern; maybe Lots Road or, if you focus on south-east London, Greenwich. However, there's a glaring omission from this list, perhaps because few traces of it remain.  I wrote this brief history of Deptford Power Station back in 2008; it would later develop into a page with vintage photographs. But why is it so interesting?

Deptford Power Station was the world's first large-scale electricity operation. Sebastian de Ferranti, pioneering chief engineer of the London Electric Supply Corporation and the man who established the principle of a national grid using alternating currents, designed and built it.

The station was located on a three-acre site which had previously contained East India Company storage sheds. It was designed to house four 10,000-horsepower engines and 500-ton alternators, enough to supply 2 million lamps. Unfortunately, the planned Deptford Power Station was going to be too effective: during its construction, the Board of Trade decided to limit its area of supply and allow competitors, while technical problems meant delays which lost the company many customers. Its capacity was drastically scaled down when it opened in 1889; frustrated, Ferranti left the company in 1891.

However, the company went on to attract more customers and when the London Electricity Supply Corporation later merged with nine other companies to become the London Power Company, they built a new station on the Deptford site. Construction in 1926 proceeded quickly, despite tragedy when a shaft ring fractured, killing five men. Following nationalisation in 1948, a high-pressure extension was built and the power station became Britain’s second-largest. Throughout its operation, the station received coal supplies by river to its own jetty. However, the Ferranti building was taken out of use in 1957 and demolished in the 1960s. The other buildings were closed in 1983 and demolished in 1992 - click here and here for photos.

The power station and its creator are now commemorated locally by the Ferranti Park, opened opposite the Laban Centre on 19 June 2004. The power station's jetty also remains, rotting quietly in the River Thames.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Pirates to patriots: St Malo's corsairs

As a walled town surrounded by sea, St Malo made a tempting home for pirates. Since the sea is full of rocks and difficult for outsiders to navigate, it was better still. Their position improved even further when, like Britain's privateers, they became state-licensed: no longer pirates but corsairs. At a stroke, they were transformed from evil robbers at risk of being hanged to patriotic warriors harassing enemy shipping. Indeed, St Malo still describes itself as the 'corsaire city'.

The crucial difference between a pirate and a corsair was that the latter had a letter from the King of France (although Brittany was independent, France found that these St Malo mercenaries were a valuable supplement to the French navy). It authorised them to act against enemy shipping during wartime, and should ensure that if captured they would be treated as prisoners of war rather than as pirates. They were mainly deployed against the English, especially during the Hundred Years War when they played an important role in disrupting trade through the English Channel. They later fell out of royal favour, but experienced a resurgence in the seventeenth century under Louis XIV. In 15 months from May 1702, St Malo's corsairs took 181 ships and 137 cannon; the town was known as the richest in Europe. Spoils were divided, with 10% going to the admiralty, 60% to the shipowner and 30% to the crew. This golden period saw two of St Malo's most famous corsairs: Duguay-Trouin and Robert Surcouf. Both have statues in the town today.

Duguay-Trouin was born in 1673 and his parents intended him to become a priest, but after a period of debauchery while studying in Caen he returned to St Malo and became a corsair - although he suffered from sea-sickness for the whole of his first voyage. However, he showed real flair for the work and soon became a captain - no easy job, since crews were always ready to revolt. After taking many English and Dutch ships, he sailed to Rio de Janeiro in 1711 with a small fleet of ships to capture the city from the Portuguese. He succeeded in doing so after a hard fight, and then, having released a number of French prisoners, sold the city back to Portugal for a hefty price - reputedly the greatest corsair victory of all time.

Surcouf's most famous victory was the taking of the Kent, an enormous ship belonging to the East India Company. His much smaller force overwhelmed the crew and 400 soldiers on board, killing the captain with a grenade. The prisoners were then taken by another ship to England, where they would be exchanged for French prisoners; meanwhile, Surcouf had to throw his cannons overboard to escape English pursuers and return safely to St Malo with the booty. However, unwilling to give half the gold on board to the government as required, he preferred to throw it into the sea.

Corsairs would enjoy a final resurgence during the Napoleonic wars, but were now widely seen as immoral. Under pressure from the English, they were abolished in 1854. Nonetheless, a corsair ship, the Renard, is sailing from St Malo once more - but only on pleasure trips!

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Deptford and the pirate flag

This skull and crossbones sits on the gatepost of St Nicholas’ Church, Deptford. You can see why, according to legend, the 'jolly roger' pirate flag was inspired by the church. However, the skull and crossbones wasn’t a new idea when it appeared in Deptford in the seventeenth century: even in London, a sculpted image was present in 1558, on the tomb of Henry VIII’s ex-wife Anne of Cleves. It was meant not to make people frightened for their lives but to remind them of their mortality and the need to prepare for the afterlife. 

A similar use of skulls on a church entrance can be seen at St Olave’s in the City of London. Charles Dickens was inspired by this grisly gateway to rename the spot the ‘Churchyard of St Ghastly Grim’ in The Uncommercial Traveller:
One of my best beloved churchyards, I call the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim... It is a small small churchyard, with a ferocious, strong, spiked iron gate, like a jail. This gate is ornamented with skulls and cross-bones, largerthan the life, wrought in stone; but it likewise came into the mind of Saint Ghastly Grim, that to stick iron spikes a-top of the stone skulls, as thoughthey were impaled, would be a pleasant device. Therefore the skulls grin aloft horribly, thrust through and through with iron spears.
The jolly roger may or may not have been copied from a Deptford churchyard, but it certainly was a design used by real pirates. The very first person known to fly a skull and crossbones was Emanuel Wynne, a French pirate who mainly operated in the Caribbean. His jolly roger was spotted in 1700. Other users included Edward England, an Irishman who worked on the African coast until his crew mutinied because he wasn’t bloodthirsty enough; Englishman Richard Worley who was captured in Jamestown harbour; and Henry Avery who mutineed against his captain and went on to take enough loot in one vicious journey to retire.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Venice in the City of London

Belying the stereotypes, Chartered Accountants' Hall has one of the quirkier interiors to be found in the City of London. Its library may have the expected bookcases, paintings and polished wood furniture - but it also has a bridge modelled on the Rialto in Venice. 

1 Moorgate Place was built in 1890-93 by John Belcher. He had travelled extensively in Europe, and his studies there informed the Baroque Revival design. The whole of his building is wonderful, but the indoor bridge is unique in the UK. 

Its strong Italian influence is rather appropriate, as double-entry bookkeeping was invented in Italy. Its grandeur was an assertion of confidence from a newly-professionalised body: the Institute of Accountants had been formed just twenty years earlier and the Royal Charter was granted as recently as 1880. 

The building holds another surprise, too: behind the original Victorian rooms is a Great Hall built in the 1960s. This vast, modern space was created after the merger of several accountants' bodies had seen membership expand enormously in the 1950s. William Whitfield created a concrete hall uninterrupted by internal support columns but relieved by imaginative use of texture. 

I visited Chartered Accountants' Hall with London Historians. 

Monday, 2 December 2019

St Johns' Conduit, Bristol

Walking up Park Street, Bristol, there are plenty of distractions: the steep walk, the interesting cafes and shops either side, the Wills Building ahead. It's worth looking down, though: set into the pavement are markers for St Johns' Conduit.

Like most mediaeval cities, Bristol faced issues with clean drinking water. The solution was to pipe fresh springwater from outside the city through a network of wooden pipes. One such conduit, St Johns', ran from the top of Park Street into the city centre below. It was part of a network established by the city's religious orders; a branch pipe supplied excess water from the conduit to parishioners. 

The water still flows today, its route indicated by these markers. The conduit ends at the Church of St John the Baptist, which was built into the city walls. The precise location changed in the mid-nineteenth century; the bigger change, of course, is our ready access to clean water piped directly to our homes. Yet the conduit proved useful more recently than we might expect, when it became the main source of water to this part of the city during the bombing raids of World War II.

St John's Gate, c. 1816

St John's Gate image: Wikimedia

Sunday, 1 December 2019

A very elderly eagle

Croydon Minster's lectern has a personality-filled eagle, but his rather jolly and amiable expression is not the most notable thing about him. This lectern is a rare survival, dating from the fifteenth century: one of the few to survive Henry VIII's Reformation. 

In the middle ages, landowners paid a penny tax known as 'Peter's pence' to the papal treasury. At Croydon, the coins were apparently put into the eagle's beak and collected through his tail. Since the sixteenth century, he has had to survive without that annual snack!

The Minster itself has been rather more battered by time. A church has been here for over 1000 years and six Archbishops of Canterbury were buried here, since they had a palace in the town (now part of a school). Of these, John Whitgift gave his name to many places in the town thanks to his philanthropy as well as his prominence. He was a confidant of Elizabeth I and vigorous in enforcing conformity to her Church of England. However, the Minster's importance declined: the palace fell out of favour as the town became too busy to be a rural retreat and the building itself became damp and uncomfortable. 

In 1867, a greater indignity came when much of the mediaeval church fabric burnt to the ground. However, the Minster was quickly rebuilt and is an impressive building still rich in historical features - including the fantastic lectern. 

I visited Croydon with the excellent London Historians


Friday, 23 August 2019

Carnival, behind the scenes!

On a guided walk with London Historians (about which, more in a future post) we got the amazing chance to look around the premises of Mahogany Carnival group. They were full of activity for their busiest weekend of the year.

As well as the costumes being created for Notting Hill Carnival 2019, there are costumes from decades of previous events, many prize-winning. Our guide was Clary Salandy, both designer and a passionate advocate for this art.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Happy 125th birthday, Tower Bridge!

My favourite London bridge (as distinct from London Bridge) is 125 today. To celebrate, here are a few less-usual views. 

Here, we're looking down from one of the bridge's turrets to the walkways and the road below. Note the distinctive shadow!

This is the view from Cannon Street Roof Gardens, taken during Open Garden Squares Weekend.

Finally, views from the bridge control room. 

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Gold Corner: wartime engineering in Somerset

Gold Corner Pumping Station has a rather stylish 1930s look, so it's a bit of a surprise to notice that the date on a drain hopper is 1942 - right in the middle of the Second World War. In fact, this building on the Somerset Levels was important enough to the war effort that its construction was the direct result of a meeting between its engineer and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1939. 

Louis Kelting was the engineer to the Somerset Rivers Catchment Board, and Chamberlain had asked him to ensure the water supply for a factory at the nearby village of Puriton. Royal Ordnance Factory Bridgwater was being built to produce the experimental high explosive RDX. That would require a generous supply of fresh water - 4.5 million gallons (over 20 million litres) per day. However, the area's agricultural land also required a water supply, and meeting the demand from both would be a challenge in summer.

Kelting's solution solved a further problem: managing flood relief on this low-lying land, which depends upon artificial drainage. He had already been looking into a new channel for the Brue Valley (an idea first proposed a century earlier), and it was now built as the Huntspill River. The rush to build it began - and only after construction had started did it become apparent that the surrounding soil wouldn't support a deep channel. A shallower one was therefore built, reliant upon pumps rather than gravity to lift water into the new 'river'.

The Huntspill River, over five miles long and with bridges and pumping station, was completed in 1942 at a cost of just over £400,000. It proved successful, and continues in service today. Three diesel pumps and one electric pump keep the Huntspill River full and help protect the area from flooding.

However, while it continues to act as drainage channel and reservoir, it no longer supplied water to ROF Bridgwater. Immediately after the War it had turned to building prefab houses, but it later returned to functioning as a munitions factory; it was privatised in 1985, becoming part of BAE, and closed in 2008.

Further reading: an Environment Agency booklet about the pumping station is available as a PDF.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Britain's first multiplex

The multiplex cinema is now common throughout Britain, but do you know when and where the first one opened?

Does the hint that it's a very old shape in a very new town help? 

You may very well still have no idea, but if you happen to live in Milton Keynes then you are probably aware of it for two reasons. First, it's an interesting bit of local history. Second, it's been in the news in recent years because the building which housed the multiplex - ziggurat-shaped entertainment complex The Point - is under threat of demolition

The first multiplex had been opened in the United States in the 1960s by AMC (American Multi Cinema), and soon spawned a number of imitators. This successful innovation took a while to cross the Atlantic to Britain, and it wasn't until the start of the 1980s that plans were made to build a multiplex here. The opportunity came when Milton Keynes' Development Corporation sought proposals for an entertainment complex, and AMC entered into a joint project with Bass Leisure. In 1984, construction began and the cinema opened on 25 November 1985. 

It was a brave move, because cinema attendances had fallen badly as televisions and video recorders encouraged people to stay home instead. A vicious circle was forming: major chains weren't investing in their cinemas because audiences were dropping; dated technology and surroundings put audiences off, so they fell further; and so on. The Point's cinemas, by contrast, exceeded their targets in the first year: the multiplex would be embraced as a solution to the industry's woes. 

Of course, it hasn't been the magic cure that it perhaps first appeared - in fact, ironically, the multiplex has become part of the problem. Home entertainment technology has evolved further: widescreen TVs and internet streaming make staying home ever more of a match for the smaller screens and auditoria of the multiplex. Some cinemas have returned to the traditional, large cinema hall to offer a distinct experience and sense of occasion, while modern multiplexes - including a Milton Keynes competitor - are bigger and more modern than this pioneer. Independents combine interesting films and comfortable surroundings with more tempting alternatives to the usual, overpriced snacks. That brave and distinctive pioneer The Point, meanwhile, has lost its cinema and the building's days seem to be numbered. Appeals to its historical significance have not been enough to save it. 

Friday, 19 April 2019

Walking Mail Rail


One of the most exciting new museums is the Postal Museum, which opened its doors - and its legendary railway - in 2017. The Mail Rail had transported letters and parcels below the city for three-quarters of a century before it finally closed in 2003, but was not for passengers or the public. A stretch of this celebrated, if hidden, network now forms the centrepiece of the museum: a fifteen-minute ride in a specially-created passenger train allows visitors both to experience this very special underground rail system and to learn its history.

Museum supporters have been given a very special opportunity to walk the railway lines. As a member of SubBrit, I was able to join one of those tours and get a closer look at some of the features of the Post Office Railway. 

A pneumatic railway ran for a while in the nineteenth century, but had long closed when underground mail transport was reconsidered at the start of the twentieth. The Post Office (London) Railway Act 1913 allowed construction to begin the following year and over six miles of tunneling was completed by 1917. However, World War One delayed the installation of operating equipment, and post-war reconstruction kept the cost of materials high for some years; the railway finally opened in 1927. 

Stations, corresponding to parcel offices and district offices above-ground, had wide platforms for loading and unloading the carriages quickly. Some of the equipment is still visible today.

The 'graveyard'

The 'graveyard'

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