Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Back in Acton

The London Transport Museum throws open the doors of its Acton Depot twice a year. On those weekends, you can explore the bits that haven't made it to Covent Garden, the items still to be catalogued or conserved, the strange and scruffy pieces. Irresistible! This wasn't my first visit, and I'll probably be back next time

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Ideal House, London Art Deco

This dark, stern Art Deco building with its colourful touches of enamel decoration is a real contrast to the Arts and Crafts half-timbering of Liberty across the road. It's all the more striking since they were built only five years apart, with the Deco block completed in 1929. This sleek, shiny office building is Ideal House, originally the British headquarters of the National Radiator Company

The company was in fact American, and their rather incongruous London home was designed by the same architect as the parent company's Manhattan building. Raymond Hood was working on a very different scale here, though, and with a different partner: British architect Gordon Jeeves, who worked on many other London buildings including Earl's Court Exhibition Centre and Dolphin Square. Their version is not only smaller but rather less Gothic and more Egyptian in inspiration than its New York counterpart. 

American Radiator Building, New York City
The choice of black and gold matched the company's colours, although black granite also had practical advantages in the polluted city. 

Ideal House was part of the company's expansion in Europe; they had a factory in Hull from 1906 and also had subsidiaries in France and Germany. In 1934, the British division of the company became known as Ideal Boilers & Radiators; in 1953 it became Ideal Standard. 

Today it's known as Palladium House, and the former ground floor showrooms are home to an Italian restaurant. Grade II listing should ensure that it's here to surprise us for some time to come. 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Future history

What traces of our lives will the mudlarkers and archaeologists of the future find on the Thames foreshore? There are some clues here. 

Less predictable is what they will think of them. After all, who would have thought 200 years ago that their discarded smoking paraphernalia would one day become jewellery

Friday, 6 May 2016

Quantocks light and dark

The Quantock Hills in Somerset are both beautiful and accessible: a few short walks were enough for these pictures. The changeable British weather ensured we went from freezing cold and hail to bright, warm sunshine in less than a day!

Dusk is a good time to see deer and other wildlife (we spotted a herd, but not when my camera was to hand...). By daylight, the views look very different and more domesticated animals appear. 

The hills were the first area in Britain to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in 1956. However, they had long had their admirers: poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived for several years in Nether Stowey, on the edge of the Quantocks. While there, he wrote the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the famously-incomplete Kubla Khan: by his own account, he dreamed the poem and
On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

On the hills today, an interruption from a greedy Quantock pony is more likely. These horses are owned by the Quantock Pony Commoners, and about 50 of them graze the hills.  They have been living there since the 1950s, and are mixed-breed of mainly native pony descent. However, the habits of some have changed recently - visitors feeding them sugary treats have encouraged the wild ponies to come to the car parks seeking food. Since they see cars as mobile treat-dispensers, there have been some unfortunate incidents when their demands have become rather aggressive!

 The sheep, thankfully, seem more docile (they are more likely to be the victims of visitors' dogs). The Quantocks have been used for sheep-grazing since the middle ages or earlier, and landowners had large herds here by the fifteenth century when the wool trade was flourishing.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Ironmongers' mythical menagerie

Ironmongers' Hall is perhaps the most incongruous of City livery halls, tucked among the brutalism of the Barbican. After it survived the bombing which destroyed most of the area during World War II, the Ironmongers' Company resisted encouragements and inducements to move their home away from the new development. After aerial bomb damage from the First World War had already led them to move from Fenchurch Street to this site in 1925, the thought of uprooting again - and from a building which had withstood bombardment - can't have held much appeal. 

In consequence, this lovely building offers a faux-Tudor counterpoint to its neighbours - and hides more delights within. I was fortunate to enjoy lunch and a tour of the usually-inaccessible Hall thanks to London Historians, and found a surfeit of salamanders and a metal-munching ostrich! 

The Ironmongers were not, as their name might suggest, keepers of hardware stores. Rather, they were involved in the trading and manufacture of ferrous metals, and there are references to that business scattered throughout the hall, often more straightforward than the symbolic beasts.

The ostrich (known when carved in 1629 as an 'estridge') perhaps seems a particularly unlikely representative of ironmongery, in whatever form. However, it had a reputation for being able to digest iron: hence this estridge's appearance chewing metal during the Lord Mayor's Pageant. 

As for the salamanders, a pair of them appear on the Company crest, chosen for their mythical ability to withstand fire. Long associated with the Ironmongers, they were formally added as supporters in 1923, just before this Hall was completed - which perhaps explains the enthusiasm with which they are depicted everywhere...

on the staircases...

on the furniture...

in silverware...


and even the ceiling.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Postman's Park (46): celebrating the memorial

It may be distinctly Victorian, but the Watts Memorial is no mere relic: it remains a valued part of London life. From events to books, here's a quick look at the ways it is being celebrated in the present. 

In 2009, the memorial was restored and an information plaque was added alongside, mirroring the distinctive style of its tiles. The completion of this project was celebrated by an unveiling, dramatic performances and readings in the park. 

Lone Twin Theatre Co performed an extract of 'Daniel Hit By A Train'

'Heroes of Everyday Life' sung for the first time in a century, by Alexander Knox

Last year, the Friends of the Watts Memorial was established - you can join here - and they're bringing another event to the Park next month. On the evening of Friday 13 May, you can enjoy an after-hours visit, with a talk by Dr John Price and refreshments; tickets are £12 (£10 for members). 

John Price is the author of several books about the Memorial, including Postman's Park: G F Watts's Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. This book is concerned with the history of the memorial itself and a thoughtful consideration of the purposes of such commemoration, rather than the individual stories. However, it does discuss Alice Ayres in some detail and has photographs and transcripts of all the plaques. A fascinating volume for £7.50 paperback.

For more about the stories behind each plaque, his next book, Heroes of Postman's Park: Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Victorian London looks not only at the events memorialised here but also at the lives and family backgrounds of the people commemorated. 
H Dagnall self-published Postman's Park and its Memorials in 1987. A smaller pamphlet illustrated with line-drawings, its emphasis is upon the individual stories and it includes a small amount of background for most of the plaques. I found my copy on abebooks.

Finally, Public Sculpture of the City of London by Philip Ward-Jackson contains a substantial section on Postman's Park - as well as impressive coverage of the rest of the square mile. This book is published by Liverpool University Press and costs £30.

Moving away from non-fiction, The London Tourist Guide is a poem inspired by, and effectively evoking the atmosphere of, the memorial. If you'd prefer prose, parts of Audrey Niffeneger's Her Fearful Symmetry take place in the park. And a film suggestion? It would have to be Closer, which begins and ends in Postman's Park.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Theatre and fire

Sometimes it's not the obvious things that draw you in and lead to new stories. On a London Historians tour of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, there were plenty of eye-catching features: statues, chandeliers, elaborately-decorated rooms, all designed to be noticed and deserving of attention. Yet a small label on a bit of wood down in the cellars also caught my eye, and proved worth a little research. 

Merryweather & Sons were makers of fire appliances, and the business dated back to 1692 (a period in London's history when people must have been particularly aware of the need for fire precautions). Founded by Nathaniel Hadley, it became Merryweathers in the nineteenth century, when one Moses Merryweather - who had originally joined the company as an apprentice and later married the owner's niece - took over. They began in Long Acre, selling fire pumps and leather buckets, and stayed there until, ironically, the factory burned down in 1873. Another had been opened in Lambeth in 1862; both were replaced by a new one in Greenwich, opened in 1876. In 1892 it became a limited company, Merryweather Ltd - suggesting that the Theatre Royal label is a Victorian survival. Only in the late twentieth century did the company move out of London, and it is now based in Kent.

1886 advertisement

The company enjoyed great success, winning the international fire engine competition at Crystal Palace - and a government contract - with the Merryweather Sutherland, a horse-drawn, steam-powered fire engine in 1863. By the end of the nineteenth century, they had diversified into other kinds of water supply equipment as well as safety rafts, dredging apparatus, tram engines, and an early petrol cycle. However, firefighting equipment would remain their main business.

View of the Drury Lane fire from Westminster Bridge (artist unknown)

Fire was a huge concern for theatres: the Theatre Royal Drury Lane famously burned down in February 1809. Its owner Richard Brinsley Sheridan had rebuilt the fabulous theatre just 15 years earlier - complete with the latest fire-prevention features, including water tanks and an iron safety curtain. Watching it go up in flames, drink in hand, Sheridan famously said, 'A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.'

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Barton Passage, Manchester

The nineteenth century saw a profusion of shopping passages, offering welcome respite from the dirt, traffic and chaos of the city. Paris had an extensive network, many of which survive; London had fewer, but it's hard to beat the grandeur of examples such as the Burlington Arcade. While these mainly dated from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, other cities built theirs later in the Victorian period. Manchester has a beautiful example from 1871: the Barton Arcade on Deansgate. 

A slightly cramped entrance between buildings hardly prepares the visitor for the light, soaring construction of iron and glass revealed inside. In Pevsner's guide to Manchester, Clare Hartwell describes it as 'one of the loveliest Victorian shopping arcades in the country'. 

The arcades of London and Paris are clearly constrained by their sites, narrow and sometimes dog-legged; by contrast, the Barton Arcade feels relatively spacious. This is partly thanks to its soaring roof, but also reflects a change in inspiration and purpose. While the earlier arcades originally aspired to fashionable exclusivity, the Barton Arcade is acknowledged to have taken its inspiration from the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II in Milan, much larger and closer to today's shopping centres. Although it wasn't fully completed when Barton Arcade was being built, it had already been featured in The Builder - an honour its smaller Manchester counterpart would later share. 

This was also a rather different situation to the in-filling of cramped sites in the city. Deansgate had recently been widened, and many of the buildings originally lining the street demolished; the Barton Buildings were among the first new constructions. Their name is that of the developer, John Hope Barton, a local property owner whose arcade cost him £45,000 to build. The generous payment he received for buildings demolished in the road-widening scheme, as well as the grant of this site in compensation, no doubt helped with the cost! 

The Arcade was restored in the 1980s, so the shop fronts and floor are not original. However, the sweep of curving balconies built by Corbett, Raby & Sawyer is intact, and the fabulous ironwork from Macfarlane's foundry creates a roof which is as breathtaking as when first built. 

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Postman's Park (45): What have we learned?

Watts intended his memorial to serve an exemplary purpose: those who saw it should be inspired by its stories of bravery and selflessness. Having considered all those incidents, we can now think about whether they have anything to teach the modern passer-by.

Discovering the histories behind the tiles has convinced me that they are more than merely quaint or archaic. True, they do show us aspects of life which have now vanished - from stage lighting using open flames to Zeppelin air raids. At the same time, they are very human stories which do achieve what Watts desired - they can make us think about what we ourselves would and should do in similar situations.

There are, of course, some practical lessons. These include the value of life-saving courses: several of the drownings could have been prevented had the rescuers known how to deal with a struggling person. One of the saddest lessons is that bravery in the heat of the moment can often be futile: several rescuers died trying to save people who had already escaped.

The memorial also throws up contradictions. When children were left in charge of toddlers, terrible accidents involving paraffin lamps, traffic or open water could occur. On the other hand, those children took their responsibilities as seriously as any adult would, even risking (and sacrificing) their own lives to save younger siblings or friends.
What the monument also tells us - with just one plaque - is that such heroism did not end in the 1920s but continues today. The actions of Leigh Pitt, who died in 2007, are recorded in the first and probably last new tile added since the 1920s.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Postman's Park (44): Leigh Pitt

In June 2009, something very special was added to the memorial: the first new plaque for over seventy years.

Leigh Pitt jumped into the canal at Thamesmead to rescue a nine-year-old boy who had fallen in while playing. He succeeded in holding the child, Harley Bagnall-Taylor, above water until passers-by could pull him out using a hosepipe. However, because of the high canal walls, Mr Pitt was unable to get out himself and drowned.

His colleagues, particularly Jane Michele, and his fiancée Hema Shah persuaded the Diocese of London to allow a plaque to be added to the Memorial. It was unveiled in the presence of the Lady Mayoress.

The design, wording, and above all the bravery they record fit perfectly into the memorial. Watts would have approved of Ms Shah's comment that 'I would hope Leigh's actions would inspire someone to help another'. That was exactly what he intended for the memorial.

Leigh Pitt's plaque reads:


The Diocese of London indicated that they would consider other applications for plaques commemorating 'acts of remarkable heroism'. Another name was soon put forward: the Rev Stephen Arkwright, who went on holiday to Southwold in 1965. While there, he saw a girl in difficulties in the sea and swam out to rescue her. Tragically, although she and another would-be rescuer were taken back to shore in by a passing dinghy, Rev Arkwright drowned. Before his death, he had been working as an assistant librarian at Sion College. When Paula Flynn came across his story there, she launched a campaign to have his bravery commemorated in Postman's Park. 

However, the move to allow new plaques was by no means universally popular. John Price, for example, does not share my view of the Leigh Pitt plaque: in Heroes of Postman's Park, he criticises the description 'reprographic operator' as 'strained and ... cumbersome' and disapproves of the word 'sadly' as out of keeping with the Memorial's purpose - education, not commemoration. He points out that the Memorial is not incomplete, but unfinished: Watts had identified all the cases which were to fill the 120 spaces. New ones are therefore not needed, and to identify and add them risks undermining both the historical nature of the Memorial and any possibility of completing it as Watts intended. 

When the Diocese met to consider the application for another new plaque, it had undertaken further consultation and on this occasion, changed its view. The committee noted that the memorial was a personal project by Watts and his wife Mary, that the language it used was of its period, and that there are now alternative ways available to commemorate civilian bravery. It concluded that the addition of further plaques would be highly unlikely. 

So, should the memorial be kept as a purely historical monument, or should new plaques be considered? There is no clear answer. Although I have great sympathy for a purist approach, I rather like the idea of its purpose being pursued into the 21st century. Should we still be seeking to educate and inspire in this way today, and should we use the Watts Memorial to do it?

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