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?

Friday, 25 March 2016

Inside Duck Island Cottage


It's a rustic fantasy in the centre of London: a tiny cottage orné bedecked with porches, trellises, diamond-paned windows and carved bargeboards, Duck Island Cottage sits beside the lake in St James's Park, looking more like a country cottage than any real country cottage could manage.

Designed by John Burges Watson (not a famous architect) and built by Mr Dickson of Earl Street, the cottage was built in the 1840s to replace an earlier one destroyed seventy years earlier. It was built as a home for the park bird-keeper; by the time bird-keeper Thomas Hinton died in 1953, having lived there since 1900, it was considered unfit for habitation. Demolition was considered, but a combination of concerns about plans for replacement and a plea for preservation from the Royal Fine Art Commission saw it repaired instead. From 1959 to 1982, two park keepers lived there; it was then finally restored and today, it's home of the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust and of London Open Garden Squares Weekend

But could the interior live up to its exterior? Usually, we couldn't know because the cottage is not open to the public. However, it recently hosted an exhibition on bees, allowing visitors to sneak a look inside as they explored the artworks on show. 

And of course, no visit to St James's Park is complete without a look at the pelicans!

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Housing horseless carriages

Mews... wooden stable doors... We may think we could make a good guess as to what this building's purpose was. However, it never housed horses but is one of London's oldest car parks, in Wells Mews near Oxford Street. 

London probably had the world's first multi-storey car park, at Denman Street, which opened in 1901 and closed as recently as 2008. Its owners, City & Suburban Electric Carriage Company, had quickly added several more sites in Wardour Street and Westminster. The latter was known as 'Niagara', in tribute to the company's most popular model of car.

These inner-city, multi-storey car parks didn't have the ramps between floors which we expect today. Instead, they had electric lifts - and the one in Wells Mews is still in use today. Marks on the floor suggest that there may have been a turntable, too.

The car park remains in operation, run by NCP and serving the Sanderson Hotel. (This occupies the wallpaper company's former premises, designed by Reginald Uren, and is rather typical of its own, later decade.)

Saturday, 12 March 2016

155 Old Kent Road

Among the terraced buildings of the Old Kent Road is a detached house, set back from the road and looking a little ill at ease in its surroundings. This building, later known as the Rolls Estate Office and now a church, was built in 1795 by Michael Searles. He and his son and grandson lived in the house and had their office here until the latter died in 1863. 

All three Searles were surveyors to the Rolls Estate. Michael Searles was the son of a Greenwich surveyor and built developments in the Blackheath and Greenwich area as well as his work for the Rolls Estate. His surviving buildings include the Paragon in Blackheath and the Georgian houses of Surrey Square

Surrey Square, © Stephen Richards and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

The Rolls family were wealthy land-owners in Monmouthshire, Wales; but they also owned this valuable estate in the Old Kent Road and lived in The Grange, Bermondsey. The most famous family member was Charles Stewart Rolls, co-founder of Rolls Royce. He also has the rather less pleasant distinction of being the first Englishman to die in an aviation accident, when his plane crashed in 1910 during a flying display. 

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Postman's Park (43): memorial in a memorial

The Watts Memorial is named for its creator but is intended to commemorate the 'heroic self-sacrifice' of others. However, the artist who founded it is not forgotten here. Alongside the tiles commemorating acts of 'ordinary heroes' was placed a modest memorial to Watts himself. He certainly had a claim to be remembered beyond his role in the Postman's Park plaques.

George Frederic Watts was among the most popular of Victorian artists, considered the Michaelangelo of nineteenth-century Britain by his contemporaries. Friends included the pre-Raphaelites, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and Lord Tennyson. His sculpture Physical Energy is in Hyde Park, while other works are in the Tate and National Portrait Galleries. His former studio at Compton is a gallery celebrating his life and work.

Much of Watts' art had a wider social purpose; the 'Hall of Fame' series of portraits, intended to provide positive examples of eminent contemporaries, was effectively a counterpart to the Postman's Park project. The latter was similarly designed to provide a good moral example to those who viewed it, as well as a recognition of the ordinary people commemorated within.

However, the statuette's inscription does nothing to describe Watts the celebrated Royal Academician. Instead, it simply records his part in the memorial:


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