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 <>, via Wikimedia Commons