Thursday 19 December 2019

Deptford Ragged School archive

Deptford Ragged School was founded 175 years ago, changed its name to the Princess Louise Institute over a century ago, and still survives as the Deptford Ragged Trust and a hall on Frankham Street. Amazingly, its archives have been kept through all that time - and are now being catalogued and recorded. 

The volunteer archivists are led by museum professional Dr Katharine Alston, and the catalogue is accessible on eHive. This project is revealing all sorts of stories from Deptford's history, and the group displayed some of the incredible contents for September's Heritage Open Days. Here are a few pictures from my visit, but do explore the project's own image gallery and Instagram to see much more. 

The school was one of the earliest ragged schools, dedicated to eduating the urban poor. It opened in the founding year of the Earl of Shaftesbury's London Ragged School Union and began above a cowshed. By 1862, it occupied a disused chapel where average attendance at the day school was 160, plus 64 at the night school and 140 at Sunday school. The state provision of elementary education from 1870 saw ragged school attendance decline, but the Deptford organisation did more than educate children - it also provided outings and activities, as well as classes for adults. The archive is full of vivid evidence of its continuing importance in the lives of Deptford residents. 

Thursday 12 December 2019

Fake London facts

There is only one street in Britain where you drive on the right. It's Savoy Court, the short and taxi-filled road from Strand to the front door of the Savoy Hotel. 

- False.

This favourite bit of trivia is a myth. It has been debunked again and again, but refuses to disappear. Savoy Court is not a public thoroughfare (it's privately owned by the hotel), and is not the only one where vehicles drive on the right. Hammersmith Bus Station and various car parks share this 'unique' quirk.

So, over to you - what's your favourite fake London fact?

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Election 1888: Scawen Blunt in Deptford

As Britain again votes in a general election, we revisit a story from Deptford's 1888 by-election.

When decorator Samuel Newson was prosecuted for impersonating a voter in the Deptford by-election of February 1888, the police officer commented that 'there was a great deal of excitement that day'. There certainly was: in the keenly-fought election, one of the candidates was campaigning from prison.

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt was an upper-class explorer, horse breeder, poet and anti-imperialist. As a young man, he was posted around Europe in the diplomatic service. He married and left the service in 1869, exchanging postings for expeditions. After travelling to Egypt, Lebanon and Arabia in the 1870s he started breeding Arab horses and often wore Arab dress at home. His wife Lady Anne King, granddaughter of Lord Byron, was actively involved with him in these travels and other activities, not least the 1888 election campaign, until their legal separation in 1906 (he had been persistently unfaithful and the last straw came when he moved a mistress into the home). She also wrote several books about their travels.

The Deptford election was Blunt's third attempt in as many years to get elected to parliament. However, this campaign was hampered by the fact that he was serving a two-month prison sentence in Ireland for breach of the peace and resisting the police after presiding over a meeting in favour of Home Rule. (He would later write sonnets, In Vinculis - 'in chains' - about his imprisonment in Galway and Kilmainham prisons.) Indeed, support for Irish home rule was a key part of his campaign. His wife and Gladstone's wife canvassed the constituency on his behalf, but he lost by just 275 votes - in itself quite an achievement. The victorious candidate was Charles Darling, a Conservative like his predecessor William John Evelyn. Blunt would not contest any further elections.

Image: Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

On top of York Minster

York's gothic cathedral is the most famous, and visible, of the city's buildings thanks to its vast size and three towers. While the current building dates back to the thirteenth century, the central tower is a relative youngster, built in the fifteenth. Climbing the tower offers a new perspective on the minster as well as the city below.

There are 275 steps, so the views are well-earned!

One of the highlights comes halfway through the climb to the tower top, walking along a narrow exterior walkway at roof level. It's a rare opportunity to be eye-level with buttresses and grotesques. 

And of course, I couldn't resist some vintage signs!

You need an entrance ticket to the Minster; the tower tour is an extra £5, and well worth it - but make sure you read the health and safety advice before attempting the climb!

Monday 9 December 2019

Memorials to William Huskisson, Liverpool MP

Imagine having a successful political career, including spells as a cabinet minister and Leader of the House of Commons, yet only being remembered nearly two centuries later for your clumsiness. That was the fate of William Huskisson, best-known as the first passenger to be killed on the railway.  

Having grown up in the Midlands, Huskisson was sent as a teenager to Paris where his great-uncle was physician to the British embassy. He developed a reputation as a financier, but was also interested in politics and when he returned to Britain in 1792, soon became an MP and under-secretary of state. He moved in and out of Parliament, and moved constituencies from Morpeth, to Liskeard, Harwich, Chichester, and finally Liverpool, while also continuing to be esteemed as a financier. Huskisson was a Tory, and supported the gradual - but not immediate - abolition of slavery, criticising abolitionists' methods. He opposed a (very low) minimum wage for weavers and supported free trade and the relaxation of the Corn Laws. 

Huskisson had resigned from cabinet office in 1828, so it was as MP for Liverpool that he attended the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in September 1830. He rode on the Duke of Wellington's train, driven by Robert Stephenson himself; when the train stopped to take on water, he and a number of fellow passengers got out. Warned to keep out of the way of an oncoming train, most returned to their places but Huskisson didn't. He panicked and ended up hanging onto the carriage door as it swung into the path of the Rocket. The notoriously clumsy MP suffered severe leg injuries and died that night. 

There are several striking memorials to the hapless MP in Liverpool. The best-known is his mausoleum, the centrepiece of St James Cemetery. 

There is also a rather grandiose statue, incongruously placed against the backdrop of a modern block of flats. Perhaps he is pondering his descent from noted statesman to railway trivia...

Sunday 8 December 2019

Ghost signs (138): Gravesend ghosts

Two very diferent shop signs survive in Gravesend, neither ghost signs in the strict sense. Rather than being painted, one is tiled and the other a faint trace marked on the brick itself. 

On the High Street, smart green-and-white tiling still marks where the Worlds Stores once traded. This chain of grocers with 'branches everywhere' survived into the 1960s, selling products from meat to sugar, but couldn't compete with the supermarkets.

One of those supermarkets has had a change of branding - but the earlier lettering lives on as a shadow visible from the railway platforms. The shiny plastic signage of Tesco Metro stands alongside the remnants of 'Tesco' in an older style. This particular type was in use between 1970 and 1995, so it has proved persistent!

Saturday 7 December 2019

Ghost signs (137): The Grave Maurice

Engraved letters are all that mark a once-famous East End pub, the Grave Maurice. Established in 1723, it was - as the sign says - rebuilt in 1874. It was owned by Truman's brewery, which had large premises on Brick Lane - their chimney remains a local landmark. The strange name was apparently a corruption of Graf Maurits van Nassau (a sixteenth-century Prince of Orange).

In the 1960s, the pub became notorious for having the Kray Twins as customers. It was later popular with doctors from the Royal London Hospital across the road. By the turn of the millennium, the pub changed management and was becoming run down - 'a gloomy and uninviting dive' according to the Evening Standard in 2001. It had a short time as 'Q Bar' before, in 2010, it closed. When I photographed it in late 2018, it had become a bookmakers' and pawnbroker. 

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