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

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Duchess of Deptford

Hogarth's prints are full of detail, much of it significant to his eighteenth-century audience but obscure to the modern viewer. The current exhibition at the Cartoon Museum does a great job not only of showing many of Hogarth's works but also of explaining lots of those intriguing details. One which caught my eye was mention of Nan Rawlings, known as 'Duchess of Deptford' or 'Deptford Nan'. 

Nan's portrait features in the engraving The Cockpit, which gives a strong clue as to her unsavoury occupation. The cockpit was a venue for cock-fighting, and Nan was a cock-breeder and well-known figure on the fighting circuit. As her nicknames suggest, she was based in Deptford. 

There doesn't seem to be much more information available about Nan Rawlings. It's perhaps not surprising: although (as Hogarth shows) people of all classes attended cock fights, those who made their livings from the activity were not likely to feature in many histories. In fact, she may have been forgotten fairly soon after her death: by 1803, the 'Duchess of Deptford' was a title accorded to a lavishly-dressed figure in a print satirising the nouveau riche

In 1835, cock-fighting was banned by the Cruelty to Animals Act.  One suspects that Hogarth would have approved: The Cockpit is a depiction of the vice and degradation of its gambling audience, while his series Four Stages of Cruelty begins with its central character delighting in such animal suffering and ends with his executed body being dissected at Surgeons' Hall.
The Museum of London website has the image and a description

Hogarth's London continues at the Cartoon Museum, Little Russell Street, until 18 January 2015 and is well worth a visit. I attended with London Historians

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Murals in and out: Camberwell Library and Bath House

The Edwardian building housing Camberwell's former Passmore Edwards Library & Bath House has two murals. The first is something of a local landmark, its tiles depicting a Camberwell Beauty butterfly. They adorn the gable wall of the former baths, now home to Lynn AC Boxing Club. The Royal Doulton tiles were moved here in 1982 when their original home - the factory of stationers Samuel Jones & Co - was demolished.

The library's main room is bright, with windows and skylights: what a contrast to the windowless basement which housed the children's library. However, inside that basement are secret treasures: murals painted on the upper walls. Among the institutional green paint, pipes and wires are wonderful, delicate images from Alice in Wonderland and fairy stories. No wonder that a contemporary news report proclaimed 'Dingy Cellar Becomes a Fairy Palace'!

I visited during Open House weekend. Unfortunately, I've since lost my note of the artist's name: if anyone knows, I would be very grateful!

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Please adjust your dress


While I don't actively plan my visits around the presence of Victorian cast-iron urinals, it's always a joy to come across them - at the National Railway Museum, York, the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, and most recently, St Fagans National History Museum, Wales. 

The Welsh example is technically Scottish, since it was cast by the omnipresent Walter Macfarlane & Co at their Saracen Foundry. However, it spent nearly a century in Llanwrtyd Wells before moving to St Fagans in 1978. 

Like all Macfarlane's work, the urinal is full of elegant and decorative detail. A particularly nice feature, though, is the admonition cast into a panel of each stall to 'please adjust your dress before leaving'.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Crystal Palace in Paris

The amazing Crystal Palace, star of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park and later of Crystal Palace Park in Sydenham, was destroyed by a fire in 1936. However, it lives on in a model in Paris - where it is shown still under construction. 

The Cité d'Architecture et de la Patrimoine in the Trocadéro is dedicated to exploring France's architecture. However, it recognises the importance of the Crystal Palace as a pioneering work of pre-fabrication, and has a marvellous model in 1/100 scale, made by Philippe Dubois and Michel Goudin. 

Behind the famous facade, the builders are still at work assembling and erecting the cast-iron framework. Most of the glass is yet to be put in place. The Park's elm trees, famously incorporated into the interior of the central hall, are visible here.

The depiction of wooden cranes seems anachronistic at first glance, but is correct: this extraordinary structure was built before powered cranes had been developed. 

Of course, there is much more to the Cité d'Architecture than this tribute to a British masterpiece. Perhaps the most striking exhibits are those in the cast galleries: plaster replicas of building features from all over France. 

The Crystal Palace has a natural home here, perhaps: the Palais de Chaillot was itself built  for an International Exhibition in 1937 (replacing the earlier Palais constructed for the 1878 Universal Exhibition). Its windows offer excellent views of a landmark from the 1889 Universal Exhibition, the Eiffel Tower.