Sunday, 1 March 2015

Return to Postman's Park

Long-time readers of this blog may remember a series of posts looking at the stories behind each plaque on the Watts Memorial to heroic self-sacrifice in Postman's Park. After five years, I think it's time to dust them off, so they will be (re)appearing each Sunday, updated where appropriate. (The usual mixture of new material will be published mid-week.)

The first post introduces us to the park itself. From next week, we will be plunged into the world of Victorian accidents and disasters.

Postman's Park (1): the park

A tiny patch of green among the City's buildings, Postman's Park was created in 1880 from the former churchyards of St Leonard, Foster Lane; St Botolph Aldersgate; and Christ Church Greyfriars. Its name comes from its proximity to the old General Post Office: the park was a popular place for postal workers to take a lunchbreak. Today, the park retains a Victorian feel, especially in the early autumn.

If the park has a theme, it is not the Royal Mail but memorials. Gravestones are now stacked at its edges.

More famously, and uniquely, a wall in the park displays rows of ceramic memorials to heroic self-sacrifice. Each tile commemorates someone who gave their life to save another; the emphasis is upon 'ordinary' people. This wall was the work of artist and social reformer George Frederick Watts. He wrote to the Times in 1887 suggesting such a memorial, but when the idea failed to be adopted he funded the project himself. The plaques, designed by him, were made by Royal Doulton; he seems to have selected the cases from newspaper reports. They were meant to serve a dual purpose: commemorating those who would otherwise be forgotten, and offering each story as an instructive example to others.

The memorial opened in 1900, with four plaques in place. Watts was personally responsible for a further nine before a committee was formed in 1904 to assist him. He died soon after, but his wife and the committee worked together to place a further forty tablets. The final tablets were unveiled in 1930. Despite occasional suggestions that further plaques should be added, none have been. 
Accounts of Postman's Park often quote from some of the plaques, but all the stories deserve our attention - for the bravery they commemorate, for their human interest, and for the snapshot of Victorian England which they offer. I'm therefore going to be posting on each plaque in a more-or-less regular series. However, as we read these tales of Victorian heroism, we can also wonder: why hasn't the tradition continued since the deaths of Watts and his widow to commemorate today's ordinary heroes?

Update: since this post was originally written in 2008, another plaque has been added. It remembers Leigh Pitt, who died in 2007 saving a boy from drowning. However, there does not seem to be a wider revival of the memorial - yet.


Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Cheeky chip!

I can never resist the dubious allure of freaky food models. Self-saucing hot dogs, I-scream cones, hungry heifers, daffy doughnuts and cannibalistic coffee beans have all appeared on this blog - and in my nightmares! Usually, they're found at the seaside, so this fearsome French fry took me by surprise: he was scaring attracting customers at a Christmas market in La Defense, Paris.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Two Temple Place

One of London's newer, and most extraordinary, art galleries deserves a visit as much for its building as for its exhibitions. With a mission to showcase collections from around the UK, Two Temple Place offers its annual winter exhibition free of charge. The current show is Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West and brings together a huge range of items (mediaeval books of hours, taxidermy, Roman coins, Japanese prints, Turner watercolours, Tiffany glass, and more) collected by philanthropical industrialists and later donated to public museums and galleries including Blackburn Museum, Haworth Art Gallery, and Towneley Hall

The diverse collections fit beautifully into this late-Victorian house, and the curators have cleverly placed them in ways which complement each other. Some of the taxidermy in particular looks very much at home in its temporary surroundings!

The architecture deserves as much as attention as the exhibits. Two Temple Place was built as the estate office and London home of William Waldorf Astor, the wealthy American who also remodelled Cliveden and Hever Castle. Astor had lived in Europe as a young man, and in 1882 returned to Italy for three years as a diplomat. He became the richest man in the world after his father's death in 1890 and, disenchanted with various aspects of life in New York, he chose to leave the United States for England. He invested in the press, buying the Pall Mall Gazette, and took up writing himself; he also bought Cliveden and took out a lease on the grand Carlton House Terrace in London. It was an extravagance, then, to commission Two Temple Place as combined home and office for the Astor Estate in New York. Even more extravagantly, Astor gave his architect a free hand with the budget. The building's cost was apparently £250,000. 

John Loughborough Pearson, the architect, was best known for his Gothic Revival churches, but also drew upon other influences including Renaissance and Byzantine architecture. In building this Elizabethan-influenced house, he paid great attention to the decorations and fittings as well as the fabric of the building itself, creating what Pevsner described as 'a perfect gem'.

The most attention-grabbing part of the interior is the grand staircase, rich in wood carving and topped with a large stained-glass skylight. 

Visitors are not disappointed when they complete their ascent: among the first-floor rooms is the Great Room, wood-panelled, with a hammer-beam roof and two striking Clayton and Bell stained-glass windows. Its main doorway has nine silver-gilt relief figures of Arthurian heroines, the work of George Frampton.

The exterior is equally rich in detail and decoration. Portland stone and mullioned windows create light but impressive facades; the large weather vane, elaborate ironwork and highly decorative lamps add to the luxurious effect. 

The pair of bronze lamps was sculpted by William Silver Frith and contains references to the building's role as a modern estate office. Two of the putti are conversing on the telephone; the other lamp has one putto holding a light bulb (rather different in shape in the 1890s to today's versions) while the other has electrical eequipment.  The weather vane represents Columbus' ship the Santa Maria, a reference to Astor's family history and connections between the United States and Europe. 

Astor's wife died while Two Temple Place was being built, and it would be his retreat as he became increasingly reclusive. After his death, Astor's sons put the house up for sale and in 1922 it was bought by Sun Life Assurance. Six years later they sold it to the Society of Incorporated Accountants, who remained there until 1959; during their tenure, the building suffered much damage from a V1 flying bomb. Restored, it would be Grade II* listed shortly before being sold again in 1959, to Smith & Nephew. Finally, in 1999, it was acquired by its present owners the Bulldog Trust. A bulldog sign now hangs jauntily outside, welcoming visitors to the varied treasures within. 

The current exhibition, Cotton to Gold, runs until 19 April 2015. It is open daily except Tuesdays; entrance is free, and there is a cafe and shop. 

For more information about the building, there is an excellent and beautifully-illustrated book by Barbara Bryant, Two Temple Place, on sale in the gallery shop.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Resin, rays and restoration


The Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich must be one of Britain's grandest dining rooms - and is certainly one of its greatest Baroque masterpieces. Once completed, it was deemed too good for the retired sailors it had been intended for; instead, it has been used for formal events such as the lying in state of Admiral Lord Nelson's body. Every year, the toast to his immortal memory is still drunk here.

I explored the hall during conservation of the West wall, and was able to get up close to the work. Now it's the turn of the Lower Hall - the main area, currently looking a little faded by comparison - and a condition survey has just been completed. It involved use of a scaffold in the hall, and a cherrypicker crane to examine the heights of the vestibule's cupola. 

One happy finding is that the structure of the ceiling is sound. Wren's favourite plasterer, Henry Doogood, did such a fine job that the plaster is still in immaculate condition today. There are just some minor cracks from movement of the timber joists.

Unfortunately, there are more problems in the hall than were found in the west wall area - and the main villain is the light which pours through the large windows. They add much to the ambience of the room, and offer wonderful views of Wren's buildings, but also expose the painting to damaging levels of sunlight. When the work is completed, a key challenge for the conservators will be minimising future damage without plunging the hall into gloom. They are already considering possible solutions such as mesh blinds with UV filters.

Light isn't the only culprit, however. Since Sir James Thornhill completed the paintings in 1727, there have been a number of restorations, some better than others. The last major restoration, by the Ministry of Works in the 1950s, removed about 15 layers of darkened varnishes! In particular, at least one restoration used a pine resin varnish which is proving incredibly difficult to remove. Although more durable than solvent-based varnishes, it has now fractured, resulting in 'blanching' where the damaged surface appears whitened. The 1950s restoration, co-ordinated by the magnificently-named Westby Percival-Prescott, used a dizzying selection of powerful chemicals but couldn't get rid of all of the varnish, and it was left intact in darker areas in particular.

A further problem is the environment. Not only does this large space have uneven temperatures and humidity, but the main doors let in regular gusts of outside air. Along with the restoration, there will be changes to public access so that visitors enter through the lower King William Undercroft. Combined with a new heating system, this should provide a more comfortable and controlled environment for the paintings. 

One of the joys of the first stage of the project was that thousands of members of the public could tour the work and get really close to the west wall paintings. That initiative will be repeated in the Lower Hall while work takes place from 2016.

The project has funding from various grants, but needs to raise more money. While Thornhill was paid £3 per square yard for the ceiling (and just £1 per square yard for the walls), conservation is likely to cost £675 for the same area. Even allowing for inflation, that's more than double the cost! If you'd like to support the work, you can donate here or become an ORNC Angel

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Ghost signs (114): Victorian correspondence

In neighbouring Glastonbury and Wells are two signs (one not strictly a ghost sign) which remind us of the days when letters were sent by post rather than email. The first is a very faded sign above a door on the corner of St John Street and Queens Road, Wells. I've increased the contrast a little and with care, one can decipher 'Queens Cross Post Office'. XopherD on Flickr offers the information that it was renamed Broad Street Post Office in 1897, so this sign is truly venerable. 

Far more colourful, and equally evocative, is this panel advertising that the premises on Glastonbury High Street are home to 'Specialities in albums, jewel & writing cases, &c'. In fact, to one side is a bed and breakfast; to the other, a bookshop. You will have to go elsewhere for that writing case!

The arms at the bottom belong to the town corporation; its motto, 'floreat Ecclesia Anglicana' ('may the Anglican church flourish') fits rather oddly with contemporary Glastonbury. In fact, the arms were not formally granted, although they've been in use since the eighteenth century.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Below the water line

I've walked around locks, taken boat trips through them, but recently the Canal & River Trust gave the opportunity to walk along the bottom of one. Happily, it was empty of water at the time!

The lock had been drained for repairs: about every 25 years, the large oak gates need to be replaced. Here, the top gates were to be taken out and renewed, while the bottom set were having some repairs. Planks of wood slotted into the lock walls held back the water temporarily. While the lock was dry, visitors got the opportunity to see some usually-submerged Victorian brickwork. 

Near Angel, City Road Lock is part of the Regent's Canal which runs between Paddington and Limehouse, via Camden Town and Islington. Designed to link Paddington Basin (terminus of the Grand Junction Canal to the Midlands) with the Thames, it was also tied in to the development of Regent's Park by one of its directors, John Nash. The architect's assistant James Morgan was the canal's engineer. 

The first stretch, to Camden Town, was completed in 1812 but among the problems delaying this second section from Camden to Limehouse was the embezzlement of funds by promoter and superintendant Thomas Homer. Caught in 1815, he was sentenced to seven years' transportation. Despite the setbacks, the canal opened in 1820, and nearby City Road Basin became a popular unloading point because it proved more convenient than Paddington Basin. It thrived in the nineteenth century, with cargoes of coal and building materials being unloaded here - although there were several proposals to turn it into a railway - but declined in the last century. Commercial use of the canal ended in the 1960s. Today, the boats which use it mostly do so for pleasure. 

Want to see more of the lock? Londonist also visited, and made a video; or you could become a volunteer

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Clay pipes and anti-slavery

From the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, clay pipes were used somewhat as cigarettes are today: they offered a relatively inexpensive way of smoking, and the pipes were more or less disposable. However, some were more elaborate than others, with decorated bowls. On a recent walk along the Thames foreshore at Battersea with Jane of Jane's London - who makes lovely jewellery using pieces of antique clay pipe - I found a fragment of one such bowl. 

Only part of the design remains, and it has suffered from its time in the river. However, to one side of a central image (largely missing and impossible to decipher) is a naked man stood with chain around one leg. 

One possibility is that this design commemorated the end of slavery. Earlier pipes had featured the image of a man kneeling in chains, originally distributed on Wedgewood cameos with the anti-slavery slogan 'Am I not a man and a brother?'. The use of anti-slavery imagery on tobacco pipes was of course horribly ironic, since tobacco was largely produced on Virginian plantations using slave labour. 

Later pipes showed standing figures representing liberty: perhaps this is one of these, with the man standing, arms raised, as his chains fall away. With so much of the imagery missing, however, it is very difficult to draw firm conclusions: if anyone has further information or ideas, I would be very glad to hear them. (A larger image of the pipe bowl is available on Flickr.)

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Top ten of 2014

The final hours of 2014 are a good time to look back at my blogging year, so here are the ten most popular posts. First, the five most popular written this year:
  1. In first place, a Victorian urinal! 'Please adjust your dress' looks at the rather magnificent cast-iron urinal now in St Fagan's National History Museum, Wales.
  2. A visit to the Excalibur Estate, Catford captured the moment when Britain's largest prefab estate was poised on the brink of partial demolition. A lively Prefab Museum, full of art and artefacts, told its story. Nine months later, some demolition is underway and the museum has been forced to close - although it continues online and hopes to reopen elsewhere. 
  3. The beauties of Tooting Broadway include a fantastic cast-iron lamp/signpost/ventilation shaft. It was deservedly popular with readers, taking third place. (There are some good ghost signs nearby, too!)
  4. At number four, proof that you can find London connections almost anywhere! Paris' otherwise France-focused Cité d'Architecture includes a wonderful model of the construction of Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.
  5. Fifth is a pictorial visit to the Thames foreshore, in all its many colours!

The top five older posts include some returning favourites from last year:
  1. Most read last year, and top of the list again this year, is my (horrible) walk through Rotherhithe Tunnel. A year and a half later, I think my lungs have almost recovered...
  2. Getting more popular with age is that vintage sandwich classic, Shippams Paste. The company's unusual clock still graces central Chichester.
  3. London's finest cashpoint has a fishy third place.
  4. A hidden gem of a museum, highly specialist and only open once a month, but well worth the trip to Balham: it's the London Sewing Machine Museum.
  5. Downton Abbey? Image searches? Whatever the reason, this little look at servants' bells remains firmly in the top ten.

For the first time, one of my pages was more popular than any of the individual blog posts: the slightly idiosyncratic list of unusual London places to visit. The pages dedicated to ghost signs and Postman's Park weren't far behind. (Unsurpringly less popular was my very niche page on Deptford Power Station, 1912!)

Outside these pages, I share more information on similar topics on Twitter and the Caroline's Miscellany facebook page.

I hope you've enjoyed this look back at the year. Most of all, thank you to all my readers, and especially to everyone who has commented or otherwise contacted me this year. All the best for 2015!

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Tay Bridge Disaster

This week marks the 135th anniversary of the Tay Bridge Disaster, which saw a train plunge into the River Tay during a storm on 28 December 1879. All those on board were killed.

The bridge had been constructed only a few years earlier, to carry the railway between Dundee and Wormit. It was initially seen as an engineering triumph - its successor is the longest rail bridge over water in Europe.
The current Tay Bridge

Although construction began in 1871, the first train did not cross until 1877 and the bridge opened to passengers in June 1878. Challenges included changes to the design when the bedrock proved much deeper than expected; the 2.75-mile length to be spanned, done in a curving sweep; and the need for height so ships sailing to Perth could pass beneath. The bridge was supported on cast-iron piers, with the cast-iron columns supporting its girders strengthened by wrought-iron cross-bracing.

On the night of 28 December, a ferocious storm swept across the bridge. At 7.13pm, a train set off north along the bridge; it never reached the other side. The storm took not only the train, but also the central spans of the bridge itself into the river. In fact, the train was found still within the bridge's girders when divers examined the scene. (The locomotive was later recovered and returned to service.) 46 bodies were recovered, but at least 59 and perhaps as many as 75 people died.

Investigations into the bridge included testing of the girders in London, at the Kirkcaldy Testing Works (now a museum). David Kirkaldy was able to confirm that the cast iron lugs used to fasten tie bars to the bridge columns, and the ties themselves, were inadequate. Combined with design flaws (notably a lack of allowance for wind loading, which meant the bracing was inadequate); the questionable quality of castings by the foundry; and poor maintenance, they left the bridge unable to withstand the storm of 28 December. The Court of Inquiry which investigated the disaster did not reach complete agreement on its causes, but did broadly agree on these points.

Engineer Sir Thomas Bouch had designed the bridge, and was responsible for its construction and maintenance; he was knighted in part because of this work. Unsurprisingly, the effect of the disaster on his reputation was devastating. At the time of the disaster, he had been working on the proposed Forth Bridge, but the design work was transferred elsewhere. He died the following year, before the official inquiry was complete. 

A new bridge was built parallel to the old one, opening in 1887 - it incorporates some wrought iron girders from its predecessor. Parts of the original bridge's piers still remain visible. A memorial at the end of the bridge in Dundee lists the names of the known victims. 



Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Poisonous plants and a modernist masterpiece

In the depths of midwinter, it's good to look back at the brighter days of summer. Courtesy of a visit during Open Gardens Weekend, let's wander round the colourful garden and Grade I-listed building of the Royal College of Physicians. 

Plants are central to medicine: they are the source of many of our drugs, and have been for millennia. The RCP's garden of medicinal plants unites key species from around the world - 1,500 of them. A key theme of our guided tour was that most of these plants are highly poisonous if consumed other than in small, medicinal doses. From opium poppies to digitalis, most are capable of harming or killing. Tread warily!

The gardens were replanted in 2005, but date from 1965. The current headquarters opened a year earlier, although the RCP was founded in 1518, and are an interesting contrast to their neighbours on the edge of Regent's Park. This modernist building was designed by the Le Corbusier-influenced Sir Denys Lasdun; it hardly blends with its neighbours, but does offer an interesting counterpoint to them. Even on a cloudy June day, its bright, clean lines were striking.

Around the same time, Lasdun's National Theatre was also built. While opinion on his work in London is divided, RIBA recognised its quality when they awarded Lasdun their Trustees' Medal. The RCP are currently celebrating him with an exhibition in their landmark building, which runs until 13 February 2015