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.

Friday 1 May 2020

Execution of the Cato Street Conspirators

Five men were executed, 200 years ago today, for their part in the Cato Street Conspiracy. This plot to kill the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, as the first step in a revolution, had failed thanks to the informer who probably instigated it in the first place. Thirteen men had been arrested following the raid of their meeting in a stable loft on Cato Street. Five of them were transported; but five were sentenced to death for high treason. Thistlewood had led the group of Spencean Philanthropists, revolutionary followers of Thomas Spence who advocated common ownership of land and the 'rights of man'. It was not Thistlewood's or the Spenceans' first brush with high treason. They had planned another revolution four years earlier, when speaker Henry Hunt was to incite a riot which would turn into armed insurrection. At the first meeting, the crowd chose to present a petition to the Prince Regent instead; the second did end in the Spa Fields riots, but the planned takeover of the Tower of London and Bank of England failed. Evidence against Thistlewood and others given by a police spy was discredited, and the case against him collapsed. 

However, the causes of discontent increased in the following years. The economic hardships and unemployment which had followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars continued. Fearful of civil unrest, the state responded brutally to protest. In 1819, eighteen peaceful protestors were killed by cavalry in the Peterloo Massacre. Immediately afterwards, the government passed the Six Acts which aimed to suppress protest meetings and publications. Thistlewood was convinced by his travels to France and the United States - who had experienced their own recent revolutions - that revolution was the only answer. He was imprisoned for twelve months in 1817 after challenging the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth to a duel, but resumed his radical activities following his release. Davidson was the mixed-race son of the Jamaican Attorney-General and a local woman. He had trained as a lawyer in Scotland, but left the profession and was later impressed into the Navy. He then studied maths, worked as a cabinet-maker in Birmingham, and finally moved to London. In the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre, the former Methodist Sunday School teacher lost his faith and became involved in radical politics.  At his trial, he suggested that he might have been mistaken for another man of colour, something which had happened to him before. He also reportedly told the jury, 'you may suppose that because I am a man of colour I am without any understanding or feeling and would act the brute; I am not one of that sort'. The trial judge claimed in response, 'you may rest most perfectly assured that with respect to the colour of your countenance, no prejudice either has or will exist in any part of this Court against you; a man of colour is entitled to British justice as much as the fairest British subject'. 

Davidson also asked the court:
Would you not rather govern a country of spirited men, than cowards? I can die but once in this world, and the only regret left is, that I have a large family of small children, and when I think of that, it unmans me.
A newspaper report describes Davidson as going to his death 'with a firm step, calm deportment, and undismayed countenance ... his conduct altogether was equally free from the appearance of terror'. 

James Ings had been a butcher in Portsea, Hampshire before running a radical coffee shop in Whitechapel. After the business failed, he lived in lodgings apart from his family and committed to violent protest, apparently stating he wanted to cut off the heads of Lord Sidmouth and Lord Castlereagh. When George Edwards, Thistlewood's second in command, showed the Cato Street plotters a newspaper announcement of a government dinner, Ings offered to be first into the house to kill the Cabinet. In fact, the item had been planted by the authorities working with Edwards, who was a government agent: no such dinner was taking place. The conspirators' plans made under Edwards' encouragement formed the basis of their arrest and conviction. While awaiting execution, Edwards wrote to his wife, 'I must die according to the law, and leave you in a land full of corruption, where justice and liberty have taken their flight from, to other distant shores.'

Former shoemaker Richard Tidd shared Ings' desire to kill Castlereagh and Sidmouth in revenge for Peterloo. Like Thistlewood, he was a veteran of the Spa Fields riots - as was another shoemaker, John Brunt, who had also been impoverished by the economic depression. Brunt spelled out the reasons he and others had turned to radical politics: 'I had, by my industry, been able to earn about £3 or £4 a week, and while this was the case, I never meddled with politics; but when I found my income reduced to 10s a week, I began to look around.' According to contemporary reports, Brunt 'suffered extremely' during his execution: a reminder of the brutality of the conspirators' punishment. The court had ordered that after their death, their heads were to be cut off and their bodies quartered, in an echo of the punishment for treason in earlier ages. In the event, that part of the sentence was 'omitted'.