Thursday 31 December 2020

Top posts of a strange year

2020 was certainly different, and this blog had its own uncharacteristic period of silence. The end-of-year round-up is therefore slightly smaller than previous years, with a top three rather than the usual top five. So let's look back on some brighter moments!

The top three posts published in 2020 are: 

Section of a mosaic frieze saying 'Aux Belles Poules', with rose wreaths at either end of the words, and blue borders; and its reflection in a mirrored ceiling.

 In third place, a look at a less-known piece of Parisian history: the former licensed brothel, Aux Belles Poules. Uniquely, its decoration has survived and been restored. 

Interior of a dovecote: the walls are white, with a checkerboard pattern of square niches for the pigeone; a central wooden post extens to the roof, with a ladder which is curved to match the curve of the dovecote.

 Second place goes to another Parisian post: a  look inside a mediaeval dovecote, now incongruously sat in a suburban housing estate. 

A dirty, dusty sign says 'Trains to Stevenage' with a British Rail logo, and below that, 'Moorgate'. It rests on some dirty and abandoned-looking steps.


The most popular 2020 post is, though, a very London story: a look at the secrets of Moorgate Underground Station, right in the heart of the City.

And the all-time top three are: 

Photograph of a clock extending from a building facade on a scrolled bracket. The clock has a rectangular face with the word 'Shippams' above the dial, 'Meat & fish pastes' below. A large metal wishbone hangs beneath it.

 A fantastic clock from an iconic Chichester brand, Shippam's sandwich paste, takes third place. The post also has some great comments, with memories and family connections.  

A photograph, taken in low artificial light, of rows of femurs end-on to the camera to form a wall, with one row of skulls about half-way up and another towards the bottom of the image.

In second place, a look inside the catacombs of Paris

Photograph of a tunnel entrance. In the foreground is a metal arch between stone posts, with a height restriction sign on the top and a black-and-yellow horizontal bar. There are warning lights to either side, and a raised barrier. Round traffic signs indicate no overtaking for 1.25 miles. Beyond the arch are two cars driving along a narrow two-lane road towards the arched mouth of a tunnel whose interior appears dark. The approach is lined with trees and a brick building.

 The most popular post continues to be my walk through Rotherhithe Tunnel - a walk which is, frankly, best experienced virtually!

Of my pages, Unusual London visits remains the most popular (even if the visits are currently strictly virtual).

Photograph of a triangular stone pediment, inside which are the words 'Facts not opionions' in embellished Victorian lettering.

Wednesday 30 December 2020

Early morning, Tower Bridge


While we can't be out and about in London, here's a view of a favourite landmark: Tower Bridge, viewed from below as it opened one morning. 

I was on PS Waverley, the paddle steamer which usually spends part of the year in London. This was taken in 2018, since when the last sea-going paddle steamer has had a difficult time. After extensive repairs including a boiler refit, it returned to the sea in August 2020 but of course, Covid-19 reduced the usual programme of excursions and passenger capacity for the rest of the sailing year. As a result, there is currently a fundraiser to cover the costs of winter dry-docking and maintenance. After the repairs, and with only a few weeks' sailing time, PS Waverley stayed close to home in Glasgow for 2020. Fingers crossed that it won't be too long before we can take a paddle-steamer trip on the Thames again.



Tuesday 29 December 2020

Gunpowder Square

The name sounds suitably historical, the cannon dates from the reign of George III, but Gunpowder Square in the City of London is only in its 30s! As a plaque on the gun carriage explains, it was opened in 1989. 

The Square is not square, more of a triangle and path, lined with office buildings. It is just off Fleet Street, to the north-east of Gough Square, home of Samuel Johnson's House. However, there seems to be very little information available about the Square. One hint is that it was redeveloped from a former courtyard

There may not be many stories attached to Gunpowder Square, but it is pleasant to have another alleyway and open space in this historic part of London. And such a well-guarded one, too...





Monday 28 December 2020

The ruined Manoir de Coecilian

On the coast of the beautiful Crozon peninsula in Brittany, just behind the neolithic Lagatjar alignments, is a ruined manor house with distinctive cylindrical towers. It was once the home of poet St-Pol-Roux, until both the manor and his family were destroyed in one terrible evening. 

Roux was born Paul-Pierre Roux in Marseille, in 1880. He moved to Paris where he wrote plays and became known as a member of the Symbolist movement, before leaving the city for Brittany. After the birth of his daughter Divine, the family moved to the manor house he built on the Crozon peninsula in 1905. It was initially called le Manoir du Boltous but when Roux's son died in the First World War, he changed the name in his memory to le Manoir de Coecilian.

However, their life here came to a terrible end in 1940, under the German occupation. On the night of 22 June, a drunken soldier burst in. When Roux tried to get him to leave, a struggle ensued: the soldier killed the family's maid Rose Bruteller; he also seriously injured Divine. While he would be punished, the German Army nonetheless comandeered the house and used it as a base throughout the war. It was bombed at the end of the occupation and remains in ruins today. 

Meanwhile Roux, broken-hearted at the events of the night and the subsequent pillaging and burning of his writings, died within a few months. After the war, his daughter gave the property to the town and dedicated herself to preserving and promoting her father's work.



Sunday 27 December 2020

A long history of law books


The ground and first floors of part of a Georgian brick building with sash windows. In the centre is an alley passing through the building, with a stucco frontage including a split pediment and scrolls painted white, and a light blue-painted frontage with two windows displaying law books.

Wildy and Sons bookshop in Lincoln's Inn isn't just located in a historical building; it is a historical business itself. It has been here since 1830, selling new and second-hand legal books to generations of lawyers (and publishing them for even longer). It has always been in Lincoln's Inn Archway, although other premises have been lost - its 1946 catalogue recorded how it lost not only warehouses but also a shop in the Cloisters, Temple to bombing during the Second World War. A new branch did later open nearby, on Fleet Street. More recently, Wildy's has gained a website which not only stocks a vast range of law books but also offers a same-day courier service in central London. 

While the Wildys have died out, their business partners for over a century, the Sinkins, continue to own the shop. WEB Sinkins started a card catalogue of law books in 1930; by his retirement in 1995, it had grown to 65,000 cards covering 5 centuries, and has been used by the Bodleian Library to help them catalogue their own early law books. 

Part of a shelf filled with old books with legal titles and a glass dome with a barrister's wig inside.

 The shop is a treasure trove of old and new law books, of course. It is also a wonderful building, and there are lots of items of interest dotted around its shelves as well. That makes it an irresistible stop for London history enthusiasts as well as lawyers - and among its extensive stock, there are sure to be at least a few books that interest you as well!



Saturday 26 December 2020

Ghost signs (141): Frome

The Somerset town of Frome has some fantastic ghost signs. Probably the best are those collected on one corner building, 1 Bath Street, now an interior design shop. However, its earlier incarnations remain visible above ground level. 


On the first floor are two signs advertising A S Ashby, supplier of Kodak films and services. One is a palimpsest: the text of the earlier signs read 'A S Ashby, Kodak Film developing & printing, rapid service'; over it was painted, 'All Kodak supplies - Developing Printing'. 

The other sign, on the other face of the building, features an image of a box of Verichrome film and a manicule, as well as the text 'A. S. Ashby for [Verichrome Kodak film] and expert developing and printing, entrance Bath Street'. The background is the distinctive Kodak yellow familiar to those of us who used Kodak back in pre-digital days, when 35mm film was everywhere. 

An online search shows that Ashby was publishing postcards of local views in the Edwardian and inter-war years. Many postcards - and his photographs of Frome Carnival queens - are available, but little information about the man or business. Kodak launched Verichrome in 1931, and it was only discontinued less than two decades ago.

However, the building has more than these two ghostsigns. Above the second floor is a strip of plain text, telling an even older story about this building. Spanning both sides and the corner, it reads, 'China & glass showrooms, dinner services, toilet sets, vases, statuary, [---res], portmanteaus'. The final word is intriguing, as a portmanteau is a piece of luggage typically made of leather, not china or glass!

Friday 25 December 2020

Merry Christmas crackers!

The Christmas cracker seems ubiquitous in Britain at this time of year - in shops, on tables, and in seasonal illustrations. It's also a London invention: confectioner Tom Smith was apparently inspired by the French papillote wrapped sweet, but added the snap, in 1847. Legend has it he was inspired by the crackle of a log on a fire. Of course, other manufacturers soon began creating their own crackers - so Smith's son Walter swapped the original sweet inside for gifts and paper hats. Tom Smith's contribution to Christmas tradition is marked by a fountain in Finsbury Square.

The BFI Archives have shared this film from 1910, showing crackers being made - and ending with a strange seasonal twist!

The company shown, Clarke Nickolls & Coombs, were confectionery and jam manufacturers, founded in 1872 and based in Hackney Wick. They appear to have been unusually socially responsible employers, having introduced profit-sharing in 1890 as well as providing a convalescent home and social clubs for employees. A provident fund paid pensions, funeral grants and even 'marriage portions' for female employees. In 1946 the company changed its name to Clarnico, and later became part of Trebor Bassett.

I shall be pulling my Christmas cracker alone this year - but maybe I'll imagine the ghost of Tom Smith as I do so!


Saturday 19 December 2020

It's coming back...

View from 55 Broadway, showing the trees of St James's Park to the left, the London Eye in the centre, and the Houses of Parliament to the right.
 After a lot of neglect, this blog is going to burst back into life! (Or slowly stumble back, at least.) Beginning with a seasonal snap* on 25 December, there will be a post for each of the twelve days of Christmas and then one post a week. I can't wait to start sharing random bits of history and photos again.

For other random material, including interesting links, you can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram


* Yes, that's a hint!

Monday 25 May 2020

A 14th-century tower in the Paris suburbs

In the southeastern suburbs of Paris, Créteil is off the tourist track - but it does have a hidden treasure. The Colombier de Créteil is a dovecote which has survived here since the fourteenth century. It's the last trace of a noble estate owned by the Treasurer of France - the administrator of the royal finances. Today, it sits incongruously among modern high-rise housing.

The fifteen-metre tower was built of local stone in about 1375. Such large pigeon lofts were a privilege of estate owners, and this one was certainly large. There is a downstairs room (now used to screen films of the dovecote's history to visitors); but the farmer would take a narrow flight of steps to the main loft.

It held 1500 pairs of pigeons, each with their own boulin or niche. Its cleverly-made rotating ladder allowed access to their niches; the ladder could be turned from below and is cleverly angled to move freely within the curving walls. (The current woodwork and ladder were reconstructed, and the dovecot restored, with the help of plans drawn by Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc in the nineteenth century.)

This might seem like a relatively humble, agricultural building but it was actually something of a status symbol. The building of colombiers was carefully controlled; they had to be in proportion to the amount of land held (since the pigeons would need food, and are fond of seed and grain). Large, freestanding structures such as this one were the privilege of seigneurial lords. Unsurprisingly, they were far less popular with nearby peasant farmers who found them a threat to newly-sown crops.

However, the most extraordinary thing about the colombier is not its size, its siginficance, or its ladder. This whole building moved 45 metres in 1972! The desire to preserve a historical monument, and the need to build housing and a swimming pool on its original site, came together in a brave project to move the structure from its original location. It was not dismanted and rebuilt but moved in its entirety - an ambitious, but thankfully successful, undertaking.

Le Colombier de Créteil is not generally open to the public, but occasional visits are arranged by Explore Paris and led by Les Amis de Creteil.  

Sunday 17 May 2020

A little Piccadilly Circus secret

Tucked away in a part of Piccadilly Circus Underground Station inaccessible to the public is this tile. The station opened in 1906; this tunnel was one of those no longer used after it was extensively modernised in 1929.

Tiling is important on the Underground. Of course, it serves a practical function, providing a hard-wearing surface for station interiors which can be shaped to fit the many quirks of the environment and is relatively easily cleaned.

Wood Green Station tiling detail
The Underground's tiles are also an integral part of station design. They add colour and appeal to these windowless, often featureless spaces. 

Aldgate East tiling detail

Many stations have distinct patterns, originally designed to help illiterate passengers to recognise their destination. Leslie Green's Piccadilly Line stations, of which the old Piccadilly Circus was one, made use of this technique. The variety of styles are also a branding exercise - their diversity reflects not only the age of the system, but also the many companies who originally owned different sections of it.  

So, tiles matter. But where do they come from? This little stencil tells us a lot about where one part of one station sourced its wall covering. 

W B Simpson & Sons were established in 1833 and are still trading today - and still working with London Underground. While these particular tiles are no longer visible to the public, there are plenty of other examples of their work throughout the system, from the Northern line around Camden Town to the Jubilee Line extension. Other clients included Turkish baths, theatres and restaurants, medical buildings, and toilets.

Simpsons are described here as sole appointed agents for Maw & Co: founder William Butler Simpson had become Maw's sole agent in London in 1858. Maw also supplied bisque tiles which Simpsons decorated with their own designs in kilns at Vauxhall and, later, Chandos Street. WB Simpson's sons had become partners in the firm in 1860; after their retirement in the early 1890s, the new owners won a huge contract with London Underground. Worth an incredible £100,000, it even required the company to bring its own trains underground to move the materials around. 

Tiled corridor, Cardiff Old Library

The company of Maw & Co was not much younger than Simpsons. It was founded by brothers George and Arthur Maw in 1850 with a factory in Worcester, later moved to Shropshire. Their new 1883 ceramic tile factory was the largest in the world, making 20 million tiles a year. As well as their huge contribution to London Underground, they were also famed for their encaustic floor tiles and mosaic tiles, as well as for their work at many other locations - including the glorious tiled corridor in Cardiff Old Library (now part of the city museum). Maw & Co would finally close in 1970.

Much like the corridor it adorns, then, this tile with its humble stencil leads much further than a casual glance can show. 

This was just one small detail on the Hidden London tour behind the scenes of Piccadilly Circus. 

Sunday 10 May 2020

Salisbury Plain's lost village

Since 1943, nobody has lived in the village of Imber. Visiting is only possible on a few days a year; the rest of the time, it is part of the Army's training grounds. 

The War Office has owned land on Salisbury Plain since the late nineteenth century. By the mid-twentieth century, its extensive holdings included most of the village of Imber. It would prove to be a far from ideal landlord.

Imber's villagers were evicted in 1943, to allow American troops to train there during the Second World War. Despite assurances that they could return later, their exile didn't end when the war did: they have never been able to go back. 

Many of the original buildings have been destroyed as a result of the military exercises. A few are still standing. Some new ones have also been added; they are training sites, not homes.

A path leads to the one intact building from the original village: St Giles' Church. It is open for worship one day a year. 

The church can also be visited on several other days, including as part of the annual Imberbus Day. It is a worthwhile destination for its historical interest. Parts of the builidng date from the fourteenth century, althought the chancel was rebuilt in 1849. Features include seventeenth-century graffiti. 

Perhaps the most striking decoration in the church is its wall paintings, which have survived from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. 

Note the cartoon hidden within the pattern!

In the bell tower is another painting, serving a more practical purpose. It is a seventeenth-century list of bell changes.

The annual Imberbus Day offers an opportunity to see the deserted village, as well as to travel on what is probably Britain's most infrequent bus route.* Buses run from Warminster's railway station across Salisbury Plain to Imber and beyond, with a busy interchange at Gore Cross. Routes are served by vintage buses, complete with conductors. It's not just the visit to Imber, but also the rare chance to ride route 23A, which makes the day extraordinary!

*Imberbus Day has been cancelled for 2020. 


Monday 4 May 2020

Aux Belles Poules, Paris

In England, prostitution has for centuries occupied a strange position in law: it is legal, but most surrounding activities are not. By contrast, it was state-regulated in France between 1804 and the end of the Second World War. Brothels, known as maisons tolérées, were registered by the state and subject to strict regulations.

The building itself had to be discreet: brothels were often identified by their larger-than-normal building numbers, entrance lights, and a grille in the front door. Women who worked within were registered with the state, and underwent frequent medical examinations.

Aux Belles Poules had its heyday in the 1920s. It became one of the best-known maisons tolérées, although it catered for a more middle-class clientele than some of its famous, more opulent rivals. Small shows were staged in this decorated room while champagne flowed. Clients would then be led to the bedrooms upstairs (which no longer exist).

The images reflect the building's function. While many of the tiled details are lush and richly coloured, the top friezes are more varied; they are more interesting as history than fine art. However, the effect would also be different seen through lower light and a haze of champagne. 

'Belles poules' means 'beautiful hens', which explains the rather curious logo on what is now the bathroom floor. 

Life for the women who worked here - about thirty of them - was far from ideal. The hours were long, with the establishment open from around 3pm to 4am. As well as charging for board and lodging, the house sold other necessities such as toiletries and cosmetics to its staff at inflated prices (and they had little free time to shop on their own account). All these expenses meant that they were usually in debt to the house. Combined with their inscription on the state register, this made leaving - or saving for retirement - difficult. 

The registered brothels were closed following the loi Marthe Richard of 1946, named for the former registered prostitute, later aviator, spy, and city councillor who campaigned for it. Aux Belles Poules clung on until 1948, when its premises of Aux Belles Poules became student accommodation. It went through several more uses, the murals decorating its walls covered over and almost forgotten. 

The current owners bought the premises as offices for their IT business. A few years ago, they took down the boards and uncovered the suriving decoration in the main room and entrance hall. It had suffered in the intervening decades - some tiles had even been drilled through to accommodate wiring, for example - but they undertook a full restoration.

Following the rediscovery and restoration, the main rooms have become an event venue: a third chapter in their long, strange life. The owner, Caroline Senot, is determined to share the story of their past.