Tuesday 28 December 2021

Molly and Morris

Photograph of dancers and two musicians stood in the street

If you walked down Deptford High Street, through the market and towards the station, on 11 December then you would have seen Fowler's Molly Dancers performing in the street. As is usual for morris dancing, the day's stops were all outside pubs! However, this was not just an excuse for a few pints, but the continuation of an older tradition. 

Photograph of three dancers standing in the street in molly dancing dress.

Molly dances, a form of morris dance, were performed in winter in East Anglia by agricultural workers. They disguised themselves in various ways including by painting their faces and wearing women's clothes. They performed parodies of familiar dances in return for tips and refreshments, traditionally dancing on Boxing Day and Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night). Originally, the Plough Monday collections went to the church who had blessed the ploughs that day; but the blessings largely ended with the Reformation and by the nineteenth century, the dancers kept their takings. Their disguises were those traditionally favoured by rioters as well, and they were often associated with 'plough gangs' who threatened to plough up the properties of those who did not contribute money. Their behaviour had been tolerated as part of the 'misrule' permitted over the Christmas season but attitudes and agricultural life changed and the molly dances began to disappear. Unsurprisingly, these dancers were viewed as rowdier, their antics more anti-social, than the summertime morris dancers and little effort was made to preserve the tradition. It effectively died out by the start of the Second World War. 

However, molly dances have undergone a revival from the late 1970s onwards. The dances collected a ccentury ago (fewer than for the morris, given their poorer reputation) are danced again, and others have been added to the repertoire. Today, Fowler's Molly - founded in 2000 - are one of many troops performing them over the winter months.

Photograph of two men, one holding a fiddle and the other playing an accordion

Sunday 31 October 2021

Cutty Sark updated!

 If you look at the figurehead of the Cutty Sark at Greenwich, you may notice that she looks shiny and new. Indeed, Nannie - the cutty sark-wearing main character in Robert Burns' poem Tam O'Shanter, - has been reborn recently. 

Photograph of a carved white figurehead of a woman in a shift dress holding a horse's tail in her outstretched hand.
The new figurehead

In the poem, farmer Tam O’Shanter was riding home from market (and the pub) when he saw witches and warlocks dancing around a bonfire in the churchyard. One, Nannie, was wearing a cutty sark: a short petticoat or shift. When Tam O’Shanter couldn’t resist calling out, the witches and warlocks ran after him. Luckily, his mare carried him to the River Doon: as we all know, witches can’t cross water. However, Nannie ran at great speed and caught hold of the horse’s tail just as they reached the bridge. Luckily for Tam O'Shanter, the tail came away in Nannie’s hand and he made good his escape. 

Earlier photograph of a similar figurehead, but her looser shift shows signs of wear and damage.
The old figurehead

Nannie had her own escape in 2007: when a fire badly damaged the ship, she was safely in storage elsewhere. However, by 2019 it was obvious that this wooden figurehead - itself a 1957 replacement - was suffering from rot and a new version was needed. The old Nannie has retired to the National Maritime Museum, and a new incarnation was carved from Swedish redwood by woodcarver Andy Peters. She was installed on the ship in June 2021: a crane lifted her into place, she was carefully attached, and as a finishing touch the 'tail' was placed in her hand. 

If you'd like to see more about the process, there are plenty of videos on the Greenwich museum's website

Friday 24 September 2021

A saint and a scandal


Photograph showing part of a doorway arch carved in pale golden stone, and a metal sign with the words 'Saint Bartholomew House' which extends at right angles from the facade

Between two shopfronts on Fleet Street is the entrance to Saint Bartholomew House, an office building. It has some rather fine details: not only a metal sign extending over the pavement, but a carved entrance including the building name and cipher, two putti, and a frieze of foliage. It is no wonder that the architect and sculptor were proud enough to include their own names.

Photograph showing the carved doorway arch from a different angle. To either side, carved putti are visible.

The sculptor was Gilbert Seale - full name John Hugh Gilbert Seale. Born in South London, he was the son of an architectural sculptor and followed in his father John Wesley Seale's footsteps - and his own son would continue the business in turn. He  worked on the nearby Old Bailey as well as buildings ranging from churches to department stores.

Photograph showing a carved detail: the name 'Gilbert Seale, Sculptor'

On the other side of the arch, the year it was built - 1900 - is given below the name of its architect H Huntly Gordon. Herbert Huntly Gordon was a speculative builder as well as an architect - but eight years after completing this building, also became a subject of scandal. He and his wife each sought to divorce the other - he accused her of adultery with a naval officer, while she accused him of the same with a governess - but the court found the allegations to be unfounded and the couple had to stay unhappily married. They (unsurprisingly) lived apart, and their elder daughter stayed with Huntly Gordon while the younger lived with his estranged wife.

Photograph showing a carved detail: the name 'H Huntley Gordon, Architect'

Three years later, the couple returned to court as Mrs Huntly Gordon petitioned for restitution of conjugal rights (ie to return to the marital home). The prospect apparently appealed neither to her husband nor to her elder daughter, now eighteen, who wrote to her mother than before the separation, her parents had 'quarrelled and disagreed over every small thing': they were 'better apart'. The judge sent the couple and their lawyers to discuss the matter in private, and a deed of separation was drawn up instead.

Photograph of one of the carved putti, with butterfly-like wings and flowers in its hair

However, that was all in the future when the architect designed the stylish and playful Saint Bartholomew House. Let's finish by noting the unusual putto on the right of the doorway: as Chris Partridge of Ornamental Passions points out, this charcater appears to have butteryfly-style wings and flowers in their hair.

Wednesday 1 September 2021

Durham Cathedral: seeking sanctuary


Photograph of the Durham Cathedral sanctuary knocker: a metal face, demonic in appearance, with a ring in its mouth, on a heavy wooden door.

The rather demonic-looking monster might seem an unlikely face to find on the door of Durham Cathedral. The metal knocker was designed to deter evil from the Cathedral, maintaining it as a place of sanctuary. 

In fact, the name of this sanctuary knocker refers to the very specific concept of sanctuary in the middle ages. A person who had committed an offence could seek sanctuary in the church for a relatively short period - weeks rather than months - during which they could choose either trial or exile. In other words, it was a time to get their affairs in order and decide on their future rather than an indefinite escape from the consequences of their actions. Only in the fifteenth century would Durham Cathedral be able to offer permanent sanctuary to debtors and wrongdoers - a privilege limited to certain important churches who held a royal charter. However, it was a sort of imprisonment: the sanctuary-seeker was only immune from arrest while within the cathedral precincts, and had to have the means to support themselves there since they were unlikely to find work.

The knocker now on the door is a replica of the twelfth-century original - still in the cathedral, but now kept in its museum rather than exposed to the elements.

Friday 23 July 2021

Porlock Hill's listed AA box

 The AA box was once a familiar sight to Britain's motorists. When cars were both less numerous and more unreliable, these distinctive black and yellow structures offered help and reassurance to members of the Automobile Association. From their introduction in 1912 until 1919, each box was staffed by a sentry who would assist motorists with directions, first aid, and roadside repairs. Thereafter, the boxes had several functions, acting as shelters for road patrols, numbered landmarks for stranded motorists to pinpoint their location when calling for help from the dedicated phone inside, and stores for helpful items such as lights, fire extinguishers and maps. (Members had a key to access them.)

Photograph of a square, black wooden structure with yellow-painted edges, set behind a low wall with trees behind it. There are signs on it including an AA logo, 'PORLOCK HILL', and 'BOX 137'

From 1927, the boxes were of a standard design, made of wood painted in black gloss. Their apparent decoration was also functional: plaques with distinctive yellow accents included logos, the box number, and the name of its location. Edges of the walls and door were also picked out in bright yellow strips. Even the roof finial doubled as ventilation for the interior. The examples in this post are the newer, 'Ennam' model introduced after the Second World War: still black and yellow, but without the highly tapered walls of its predecessor, and with internal panels made of melamine. 

Photograph showing the top of the AA box in detail: 'PORLOCK BOX' is clearly legible.

In their mid-century heyday, over 1000 AA boxes were installed in Britain (with close to 800 in operation at their peak). As public telephones became more readily accessible, and patrol officers had well-equipped vans, so the boxes became increasingly redundant and by the 1970s, their numbers began to decline. The AA abandoned boxes in favour of telephones on poles, most familiar along motorways. Today, only a very few boxes remain - fewer than two dozen are known, of which three are in museums. One of the finest and best-known survivors is the one at the top of Porlock Hill, Exmoor, whose notoriously steep road must have brought plenty of customers in overheated vehicles! It is now Grade-II listed and was recently restored so it looks particularly fine. 

Photograph showing close-up detail of the AA box: a sign, 'CALL BOX NO LONGER IN USE AND HAS BEEN CLEARED OF ALL COMMUNICATIONS EQUIPMENT'

The AA's original activities were perhaps a little questionable. Founded in 1905 as the Motorists' Mutual Association, it dates from a time when cars were not only a rarity but also subject to highly restrictive laws, particularly around speed. Teams of cyclists were employed by the association to alert drivers to speed traps so that they could avoid being caught and penalised by the police! Its services quickly changed and expanded to include motor insurance, road signage, hotel ratings (still much used today), and roadside repairs. Its competitor, the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) is even older, having been founded in 1897 and becoming 'Royal' a decade later. It had its own network of (rather less stylish) boxed, and by the 1960s members of either organisation could use each other's boxes. 


Photograph showing the full length of the AA box

Today, motorists are expected to use their mobile phones to call for help. The demise of these boxes has removed more than telephones, however: as well as shelter and simple equipment, we have lost a reassuring landmark along our roads. 

Full-length photograph of one side of the AA box

Sunday 11 July 2021

Tin boxes, trade unions, and tiling

Photograph of a section of brick facade. There is a tiled sign: inside a green border is a blue background with white lettering saying 'A. G. SCOTT'. Above the sign are the bottoms of two windows and the brick is in red and white stripes. Below are the tops of two windows with curved top edges, and the wall is all red brick.

This Deptford sign is so bright and colourful that it is almost surprising to find the company A G Scott made something as prosaic as tin boxes! Their headed notepaper emphasised that they made plain tins and fuel cans as well as the decorative containers for products such as tea and biscuits. 

Photograph showing a wider view of the building. The top three storeys are visible: the higher strorey has small rectangular windows and striped brickwork while the lower storeys have large rectangular windows with curved tops.  The tiled sign is at the centre, and this central section has a triangular pediment with the same striped brickwork as the top storey.

The bright colours also distract from a darker story. Tin box making was unpleasant, dangerous and poorly paid work done mostly by young women. They used power presses to stamp out the box shapes, and sometimes lost fingers to the machinery. The shapes then had to be soldered together - but were very sharp on their cut edges. The box would then be decorated, ready to be filled: a pretty product showing no trace of the poverty and injuries experienced by those producing it.

The company was established in 1890 and as they expanded, added this building - Scott House - in about 1906. Wage rates at A G Scott for 1911 survive. Pieceworkers made around 3d per hour - a little under £1 at today's values; many workers earned 5/6 a week - about £21 in current terms, and less than a skilled tradesman would have earned in a single day. The Trade Board Act 1909 allowed minimum wages to be set for 'sweated' trades: ie those with excessively long hours, poor pay, and insanitary working conditions. In response to the sweatshop conditions of many tin box factories, a minimum wage was imposed through the Tin Box Trade Board established in 1914. 

Improvements in pay and conditions were hard-fought, with prominent trade unionist Mary Macarthur involved in the campaign for better working conditions in tin box factories. The 1914 Annual Report for the National Federation of Women Workers included details of strikes in Deptford. A.C. Scott's workers appealed to the Federation after going on strike for higher wages, and 'in less than a week considerable increases were obtained which included a minimum wage of 6/6 for girls of 14 and a minimum wage of 12/- to 15/- for women of 21' depending on their work. All the women at Scott's joined the Federation: some 600 of them. The neighbouring Lloyd's tin box factory soon followed their example, and Francis & Sons on Trundley Road were not far behind; later joined by Dyson's, who also made tin boxes. Unsurprisingly, this upsurge of trade union activism was described in the report as 'the Deptford uprising'. 

Today, few traces remain of Deptford's tin box industry. Scott's moved out of the building in 1922 and it has since been a sack factory, laundry and, now, housing. This sign, then, is not just an attractive feature but a clue to the building's complex past.

Sunday 4 July 2021

Ghost signs (143): ghost bus stops

Photograph of a wall sign. It has black text reading 'MAGPIE HALL ROAD' on an off-white background. The sign is on a red brick wall topped with broken glass and loops of barbed wire.

These ghost signs are rather unusual: they are not signs for businesses but for bus stops. They also have rather more barbed wire and broken glass above them than most examples, because they are on a wall of Chatham Dockyard.

A similar sign saying 'CHATHAM STATION'

A plaque below 'Chatham Station' explains that the signs, which have been restored, date from the days when the dockyard employed thousands of people. Many travelled to and from work by buses which stopped along Dock Road. The routes extended as far as Gravesend, Rochester, and Maidstone as well as more local destinations. 

A similar sign saying 'MAIDSTONE'

One of the stops has an intriguing name: Jezreels. In fact, this is still the name of a bus stop in Gillingham today. However, the building which inspired its name was demolished in 1961: the extraordinary Jezreel's tower.
 A similar sign saying 'JEZREELS VIA CANTERBURY STREET' 

James Roland White was a soldier in the 16th Regiment of Foot, based in Chatham. He became interested in Joanna Southcott's teachings in the late 1870s and joined a local sect devoted to them. He soon became its leader, changed his name to James Jershom Jezreel, and wrote a manuscript, the Flying Roll. In 1881, he left the army and began building a new headquarters for the sect, which had grown in numbers and means. His followers - who included people in North America, Australia and New Zealand - gave their money to the cause; the Chatham community had its own businesses including a bakery, grocery, joinery and printing workshop, so there was money available and the plans were certainly ambitious. The building was to be a steel and concrete construction 124 feet on each side and 120 feet high (a compromise between his desire for a perfect cube and the architects' attention to practical constraints). In the basement would be printing presses; an assembly room or amphitheatre would hold 5,000 people, with a round stage lifted by hydraulic power on which the preachers and choir would rotate 30 feet above the congregation; and the roof would be a giant glass dome. Around it would be fine gardens, as well as the shops and businesses run by the community. 

A large, square building with empty windows and no roof.
Jezreel's Tower in the 1920s

Unfortunately, the leader of this teetotal sect was himself a heavy drinker and died in 1885. His wife continued the building plans, although costs had become a significant issue by the time she died suddenly of peritonitis three years later. Work stopped with her death, and the building was never completed: it had walls, the basement and ground floor, as well as girders ready to support the meeting hall interior, but no roof. Nonetheless, some followers continued to occupy the building even after its sale in 1893; they were finally evicted in 1905 after falling behind with the rent. An attempt at that point to demolish the unfinished building failed, and it became a local landmark (even appearing on tourist posters) but grew increasingly derelict. Nonetheless, it survived for over half a century more before it was finally successfully demolished - in a process which took over a year. 


Image credit: Jezreel's Tower in the 1920s by Cunningham, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday 30 May 2021

International Hall

On Lansdowne Terrace, Bloomsbury, is a large hall of residence for University of London students. International Hall was opened in 1962, and remains a major hall of residence today. However, we are not looking at the accommodation, but at the decoration on its exterior. 

The walls are adorned with shields, each representing a country. They offer a snapshot of the time: India, for example, was independent, but Northern Rhodesia was still two years away from becoming Zambia. Malaya had achieved independence in 1957 but would not form the federation of Malaysia until the following year. In other words, this hall does not only illustrate the international membership of the University of London but also the changing place of London and the UK in a wider, and decolonising, world. 


That is also illustrated by the stone commemorating the building's opening by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who had until the previous year been India's High Commissioner in the UK. Part of the prominent Nehru/Gandhi family - her brother, niece, and grand-nephew were all Prime Ministers of India - she had been widowed in 1944 when her husband died following his imprisonment for supporting independence. Already a senior politician who had been imprisoned three times for her work in the independence movement, Pandit became an ambassador in 1947 and first woman president of the United Nations General Assembly in 1953.

Saturday 15 May 2021

London ghost signs get their book!

If, like me, you love both ghost signs and books then you have probably felt the lack of a dedicated volume on London's signs. While some other places have books - Liverpool Ghost Signs is a lovely example - the capital doesn't... but soon, it will. 

Photograph of the Ghost Signs cover mock-up, showing a palimpsest ghost sign painted onto a cream wall, with a blue sky above.

Sam Roberts, the leading expert on London's signs and instigator of the fantastic (UK-wide) Ghostsigns Archive, has created Ghost Signs: A London Story with photographer Roy Reed. As well as images of about 250 signs, it includes their stories, historical images, and introductory essays. It launched on Kickstarter a few days ago, and it's no surprise that it became fully funded almost immediately - but you can still take advantage of the opportunity to pre-order your copy (and get other rewards).  

Photograph showing a detail from a Redferns ghost sign: a scroll with the words 'In an old sole' on a blue background, painted onto a brick wall.

Then, we just have to wait patiently for delivery in November - a Christmas present to look forward to!

Sunday 9 May 2021

Cathedral lights

 Photograph of the west facade of St Paul's Cathedral, taken from the north-west. The steps leading up to the cathedral doors are empty. In the foreground to the right is the statue of Queen Anne.

The pandemic has spawned a small photography genre: London looking empty. I hadn't contributed much to it as I've hardly been into central London in the last year, but a recent library trip was a good excuse for a walk which took me past St Paul's Cathedral. For the first time, I saw its steps without people! 

A more constant, but nonetheless interesting, presence are the streetlamps in front of the Cathedral. With space and leisure for a closer look, we can see that they are dated 1874 and rich in details. The cast iron posts include the Dean and Chapter's coat of arms, with cherubs above. 

Photograph showing detail on the cast iron lamp post, including the coat of arms and cherubs described in the text.

In fact, these lamp posts are Grade-II listed in their own right. They were designed in 1874 by the Cathedral Surveyor, architect FC Penrose, as part of wider improvements to the space in front of the cathedral's west end. Although nearby Holborn Viaduct would get electric lighting four years later, these were gas lamps. (They have since been converted to electricity.) 

Photograph of St Paul's cathedral taken from the south-east. The south facade and famous dome are visible. In the foreground is a lawn bordered by flower beds filled with pink and purple flowers including tulips, and small, shaped conifers. The far wall of this garden has a row of bronze lion heads spouting water.

 While this area is decorated with lamps and statutes, the south side of the cathedral has flower beds and fountains. A note of springtime to finish upon!

Photograph showing detail of the flower bed. A purple tulip is in the foreground. Behind it are the blurred images of other flowers in similar colours.

Photograph showing detail of a textured concrete wall with bronze lion heads attached, each spouting water from its mouth. One lion head fills the foreground; another is visible but blurred behind it, and more thin streams of water stream above them.

Sunday 25 April 2021

Burnham-on-Sea's tin tabernacle

Photograph of a small, corrugated iron building painted light grey with white windows and trim. It is rectangular, with three rectangular windows and a small porch to the left with a door facing the viewer. The roof, bowed downwards in the middle, has a little steeple with a cross on top. The building has a lawn and path in front of it, with a white gate and hedge in the foreground; next to the gate is a sign saying 'Parish of St Andrew's, Edithmead Church' with a notice for service times. Behind, trees and fields are visible.

Edithmead Church, just outside Burnham-on-Sea, is a small, slightly wonky-roofed building of a special kind: a 'tin tabernacle'. These fascinating buildings are made not of tin but of corrugated iron on wooden frames. They were bought by Victorian congregations from catalogues, delivered in flat-pack form, and usually intended to be temporary. However, Edithmead's celebrated its centenary in 2019! 

In fact, its story is even longer than that since it was an Adult School in nearby East Brent before moving to its current location for a new, and long, life as a church. A resident of East Brent recalled, much later, how the Adult School was used for tea parties, Bible readings, and a Sunday service. 'Then one day there came a shock, a big lorry came with two horses and several men, and took our beloved Adult School away to Edithmead.' That unusual origin explains the rectangular windows: many tin tabernacles had suitably gothic arched windows, some even with instant 'stained glass' supplied as a ready-made film.

The Church is actually a chapel of ease to St Andrew's Church in Burnham-on-Sea - a much older and more solid building. It even has a London connection: a little group of angels who were originally part of an altarpiece in Westminster Abbey. The interior of Edithmead Church is plain and simple by contrast. 

A photograph showing a closer view of the building in the previous photograph.

Unusually, this post is about a building I haven't yet visited myself (although I will before too long, pandemic permitting): thank you to Shaun Derry for the lovely photographs.  

Tin tabernacles I have photographed in person include the smart, green church in Littlebury Green, Essex; the mission church in Shrubland Road, Hackney; a chapel-turned-battleship in Kilburn; and the mission hall in Ganllwyd.

Saturday 17 April 2021

Street signs

Photograph of part of a Victorian brick wall with a sign reading 'EDWARD STREET S.E.8' in the centre. The metal sign is rusted and damaged at the edges; the writing is in black on dirty white, with the postcode in red. Above it is a window. Below is the top of a bricked-up arched window. To the left are three arched windows, now bricked up, and part of a white sign with blue text, for a food and wine shop.

London has an impressive diversity of street signs, as I was reminded today when this example on Deptford High Street caught my eye (much to the bemusement of a passing cyclist!). It's a little tattered and rusted around the edges, and dirty all over, but still boldly proclaims 'EDWARD ST. S.E.8'. That makes three more full stops than are found on the modern sign.

Detail of the central section of the previous photograph, showing the 'DEPTFORD S.E.8' sign.

There are so many other variations to be found on the city streets. Below are just a few from my collection. However, if you would like to see many more signs, and learn a lot more about them, then there is now a dedicated book by Alistair Hall, London Street Signs: A visual history of London's street nameplates. I would strongly recommend it: there is so much wide-ranging information, from the development of the London postal district to the creation of alphabets; from official regulations to the materials and manufacture of signs. And of course, lots and lots of photographs.

Photograph of a street sign in front of a wire fence. The modern sign is white, with black text saying 'BRAITHWAITE STREET E1 formerly Wheler Street, LONDON BOROUGH OF TOWER HAMLETS'

Photograph of a sign mounted on a concrete alleyway roof, white with faded lettering saying 'City of Westminster' in a gothic-type typeface, 'BROAD COURT' in thick, narrow typeface, and 'W.C.' in faded italic type.

Photograph of a pale stone wall with carved decoration. A modern street sign with a City of London crest says 'ST. MARGARET'S CLOSE EC2'. Below, painted directly onto the wall, are the words 'CHURCH COURT' in fading black paint.

Photograph of the corner of a brick building. On one wall are two signs, both saying LOMAN STREET SE1'. The upper sign is older and smaller; it says 'Borough of Southwark' at the top, abbreviates 'street' to 'St' and writes 'SE1' as 'S.E.1'. The lower sign is a modern one. On the other wall is a tall, narrow arched window divided into many small panes.

Photograph of a section of brick wall. In the left half of the picture is a fancy cream tablet with leaf and flower decoration, cracked and with 'SCLATER STREET' barely legible; it is surrounded by a red brick frame. To the right, in the lower part of the image, are two smaller rectangular signs. The upper one says 'SCLATER ST. E.1.'; the lower one, smaller and a little battered, is in Bengali script.

A photograph of a brick wall with a black, metal drainpipe and large bracket on the right-hand edge. There are two signs, similar in age and style. The upper one has a cracked white background and says 'BOROUGH OF HOLBORN' in red, 'THORNHAUGH STREET' in black, and 'W.C.1' in red italics. The lower one has black text reading 'LEADING TO WOBURN SQUARE'

Friday 12 February 2021

The India Club, hidden treasure

Individual black letters on pale gold backgrounds are stuck onto a cream wall. They say INDIA CLUB RESTAURANT and to their right is stuck a gold arrow on a black background,  pointing right.

You could walk along Strand and never realise it's there: unlike the grand gentlemen's clubs of Pall Mall, the India Club is tucked away upstairs in a hotel. And that hotel doesn't have the grand entrance of the nearby Savoy, but a discreet door leading directly onto a flight of stairs. Yet the India Club has real historical significance - and lots of retro charm. 

Two black doors with large glass panels are open, leading to a tiled hallway with a short flight of stairs. There is a closed, unmarked door directly ahead; the stairs continue to the right.

Spot the doorway at 143 Strand, and see that the Club is on the first and second floors. The first floor is the bar, as much of a time capsule as the dining room which we are visiting today. 

At the corner of two cream-painted walls, a round metal tube protrudes with a sign hanging from it. Both are dark brown, although marked on the right edge by cream paint left when the walls were repainted, and the sign says 'DINING ROOM' in pale letters with an arrow pointing left.

The menu is cheap and cheerful: a handy place to know about in the heart of theatreland and tourist London. However, we are not really here for the food.


Sat in the vintage interior, we are in a time capsule of Indian history. This club was founded by the India League in 1947, first at Craven Street before it moved here; it still has its Independence-era decor. In these surroundings, the League aimed to further friendship between Britain and India after Independence, and also offered legal advice and a research unit. The Club was a centre for the Indian community in London and hosted groups including the Indian Journalist Association, Indian Workers Association and Indian Socialist Group of Britain; its founders included the High Commissioner, Krishna Menon, President Nehru, and Lady Mountbatten. 

The National Trust held a pop-up exhibition, A Home Away From Home, here in 2019, and the oral histories it collected can be explored on the exhibition website.

The India Club is a unique space, and an irresistible combination of working restaurant and living history. These photographs were taken a few years ago, when the Club was under threat from developers. It saw off that challenge, but is now threatened again. As it struggles to meet a huge rent rise in the midst of a pandemic, it is raising funds to safeguard its fututure: find out more on its website

Wednesday 20 January 2021

London history on demand

Lockdown has been, to put it kindly, a mixed blessing. However, one of the bright spots is that talks previously only available to those who could listen in person are now available to all. The Greenwich Industrial History Society is one of the organisations to have made the move online, launching a YouTube channel for their fantastic lectures. So far, these include a fascinating exploration of global telecoms in Greenwich, Charlton and Woolwich by Alan Burkitt-Gray; a lecture from notable local historian Mary Mills; Greenwich's contribution to the first telegraph line linking Britain to India; and underground Greenwich. 

Another highly worthwhile YouTube channel is London Historians. This fantastic society has been sharing its annual lectures for some years, but now has monthly lectures and shorter presentations too. Definitely worth exploring!

Do you have any other channels you would recommend? 

Wednesday 13 January 2021

Olympia Warehouse sunset

Discussion about the development of Olympia Warehouse, part of Convoys Wharf in Deptford, has been going on for well over a decade. Visions of the building being reused as a cultural space, a celebration of the former Royal Dockyard's history, and so on have not come to fruition: on a recent walk, it still stood in lonely splendour. 

Photograph taken in late afternoon light. A single-lane private road leads to a warehouse, whose two gables are distinctively curved. Its first and second floors are of rusty corrugated iron, pierced with rows of windows. The ground floor storey is painted cream with large garage-type doors. In front of it and to the side of the road is bare soil interspersed with scrubby vegetation. Behind the warehouse, a high-rise block of flats is visible.

The long and sorry history of the development of Convoys Wharf has been well covered by the Deptford Dame. The Warehouse itself has survived thanks to being a Grade II listed building - not just for its distinctive curved roofline, but because it is an important piece of industrial heritage. 

Built in 1846 by George Baker & Son, it is of distinctive iron-framed construction: the original wrought- and cast-ironwork is still visible inside. Originally, the two spans covered slipways, allowing ships to be constructed within. They led into the dockyard basin (now filled in) rather than directly into the river. While the building now has a concrete floor and its more recent use was simply as a warehouse, the slipways are intact a little below current ground level. Only one other such shipbuilding shed survives, at Chatham.
Thw warehouse has survived long beyond its original working life. It was originally part of the royal naval dockyard, first established by Henry VIII on a site used for trading since before Roman times - and closed in 1869, less than a quarter of a century after the warehouse was completed. Convoys Wharf was therefore the site of a huge amount of maritime history; much was lost last century, with more to be sacrificed to the current (forthcoming?) development.  

The following photographs are from a visit (part of one of those many consultations) back in 2011.

Detail of the front gable wall. The photograph shows a section of corrugated iron, pierced with windows. Each window is subdivided by metal frames into numerous small, rectangular pains. Towards the bottom of the image, a sign shows the letters O, Y and PIA.

Exterior photograph of the warehouse. The view of the buildling is similar to that in the photograph above, but there is no road leading up to the building: instead, the foreground shows bare earth.

Photograph of the interior with steel pillars and struts and a corrugated iron roof. The interior is otherwise empty; the front gable wall and windows are visible in the distance.

Interior photograph showing the roof including steel beams and struts and a corrugated iron roof.