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.

Friday, 23 April 2021

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Wednesday, 21 April 2021

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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.






Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Ghost signs (142): Fortescue Bros of Reading

A ghost sign painted on red brick: a white background, with black text reading 'FORTESCUE BROS LTD CYCLE MAKERS. A manicule points left, with the text 'TO WORKSHOPS'

This ghost sign is tucked inside a covered alleyway off West Street, Reading - but it was worth stepping around the bins for. 

A photograph of the ghost sign and surrounding alleyway: the red brick wall, covered with graffiti tags, joins onto a flat concrete roof. To the left of the picture, a daylit yard is visible; to the right, a colourful shop front. In the foreground is the top of a large red commercial bin, bleached pink by the sun.

It (literally) points passers-by to the workshops of Fortescue Bros Ltd, cycle makers. In business by 1898, they continued through at least the first half of the twentieth century but are now long gone. The workshop may be defunct, but a jaunty manicule gestures on, jacket sleeve flashing a strip of cuff and cufflink, nails forever neatly trimmed. 

A detail of the ghost sign: a photograph of the manicule.
There is even a local London connection for me! Another branch of the Fortescue family were part of Saunders and Fortescue, who made and sold cycles in Lewisham, Peckham and Croydon.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Straight to the point

 Today, just a little teaser for a forthcoming ghost sign post - because who could resist this lively manicule? Those fingernails! The thumb wrinkles! The cuff and cufflink!

A small section of a red brick wall, painted grey-white wiht a painted outline of a pointing hand, incuding fingernail and cuff details.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

A stroll through Sables-d'Or-les-Pins


A bright blue sky with scattered white clouds, over a golden beach in the centre of the image and dunes covered with grasses in the foreground.

Let's go back to late summer, and stroll down the broad boulevard and elegant side streets of Sables-d'Or-les-Pins. This seaside resort in Brittany, France, was created in the 1920s by Roland Brouard. This estate agent from Saint Malo wanted to build a resort to compete with La Baule and Deauville. Behind the sand dunes, he built a fashionable and stylish town which hosted fashionable events including horse and sports car races, and jazz concerts. 

Photograph of a long building with a stone ground floor and two half-timbered gables, painted cream with rust-red woodwork. A sign says 'Garage'.

Its amenities included a casino and a high-class restaurant, as well as a garage for those sports cars - but also a chapel. The original building was a temporary wooden structure, described by the local newspaper in 1928 as more shed than place of worship - albeit appealing and well-attended. However, plans for its replacement came to an abrupt end when the Wall Street Crash and subsequent depression, followed closely by Brouard's death, brought the town's heyday to an end. Only in 1956 was the current chapel inaugurated - by which time Sables-d'Or had begun its new life as a family resort.  

Photograph of a small white chapel with steeply pitched grey roof and spire; its blue front door is sheltered by a porch which also has a steeply-pitched roof. In the foreground is the trunk of a tree.

The resort has a distinctive architectural style: stone and half-timbered buildings, some with sea-themed decoration, are well-spaced along wide streets. It remains a popular and attractive seaside town, even if the heady days of its glamorous prime have never quite been recaptured. 

Photograph of a large building on the corner of a road; its first two floors are stone, with doors and shuttered windows. The upper floors are half-timbered, with timbers painted in bright colours, and a hipped mansard roof with several steeply-pitched gables.

This blog previously visited Sables-d'Or to take a look at some slightly scary ice cream cones!

Photo showing part of a large fibre-glass ice cream cone with swirls of soft-serve ice cream and a disturbing face with the tongue poking out.

A photograph of a golden beach and turquoise blue sea, below a blue sky; in the foreground are plants and grasses on a sand dune.


Saturday, 2 January 2021

313 Oxford Street

Making a rare visit to a near-empty Oxford Street, I had the opportunity to get a phtograph of this fantastic late-Victorian building unobscured by passers-by.

Photograph of a tall, narrow four-story red brick building with white stucco details. These include two second-floor niches, each holding a statue of a figure with one arm raised and outstretched.

 313 Oxford Street was built in the 1870s, and its stucco flourishes show some of the exuberance of the period. (The shopfront below is, of course, a much later alteration.) It is Grade II listed, and the listing text apprpriately describes it as 'eclectic'! 

Perhaps most striking are the statutes at second-floor level, and there is an intriguing suggestion in the listing text that they might originally have supported lanterns. A closer look confirms that both figures have an arm outstretched, perfectly poised for holding a light. In fact, their forearms are so elongated it's hard to think of another explanation!

Photograph showing the two figures in niches. Their outstretched arms can be more clearly seen: the forearms look disproportionately long.