Friday, 25 November 2016

Menier's magical chocolate mill

One of the most extraordinary of  industrial buildings, the mill at the former Menier chocolate factory in Noisiel is enchanting. It sits on the river Marne like a fantastical, storybook chocolate factory, extravagantly colourful and elaborately decorative. Who would believe that such a fairytale construction made industrial history?

The mill was one of the first industrial buildings to have an exposed metal frame, created by architect Jules Saunier in 1872. He used puddled iron, considerably less granular and brittle than cast iron and thus better able to take the stresses of supporting a mill full of heavy, vibrating machinery. (Later buildings, of course, would use steel.)

His clients were the Menier family, whose pharmaceutical business really blossomed when they transformed chocolate from a medical product to a popular treat. They had been based in the town of Noisiel, east of Paris, since 1825, making chocolate powder to coat medicines. In 1836 they began manufacturing bars of chocolate; business boomed, and the Noisiel works grew. This mill replaced one built in 1842. 

With the iron framework supporting the structure, the brick and ceramic was as much decorative as functional. And what decoration! There are cocoa trees, initial Ms, polychromatic motifs of all kinds, and a clock tower that's pure Disneyland (apt, since the theme park only is a few stops along the railway line). 

An ornate lamp flanks the pretty glass porch; colourful lettering above offers a history with a touch of fantasy. The 'Noisiel hydraulic factory' is dated 1157 - 1825 - 1872, a rather surprising pedigree explained by the cocoa pod-bestrewn hexagonal tablet above. While the Meniers only arrived in the early 19th century, a twelfth-century charter already mentioned a mill here. (Not, of course, a chocolate mill.)

The rear facade is relatively restrained - but only relatively. 

No functional factory interior could entirely live up to that exterior, but the mill did make an effort. While the Menier chocolate factory was converted to house Nestle's French headquarters in 1996, many original features including machinery have been retained - and it is clear that floors, stairs and windows were impressively ornate.

The mill made history again over a century after it was built, as the first industrial building in France to be listed as a historical monument. However, a final look out of its windows reminds us that the mill is only one part  of the Menier complex - the world's largest chocolate manufactory until 1940. We'll continue our tour later...

The public tours, by Cultival, mark Nestlé's 125th birthday this year. Although they soon finish, the complex usually opens for the annual Journées du Patrimoine (heritage weekend) each September.

Alternatively, see a model of the mill at the Cité de l'Architecture in Paris.  

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Ghost Signs page update

Want to explore the ghost signs on this site? The ghost signs overview page has had a much-needed update: visit for a general introduction, further reading, and indexes by subject matter and location. 

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Ghost signs (124): Centaur Cycles, Cambridge

On King Street, Cambridge is a large sign for Centaur Cycles - 'the best the world produces'. A closer look and some careful deciphering reveals the words 'famous since 1876' and, on the bottom line (I think), 'prices being within the reach of all'. 

Centaur had indeed been founded in 1876, in Coventry. It was in 1890 that they developed their lightweight bicycle, the 'King of Scorchers' (sold as the 'Silver King' in the United States). Weighing only 26 lb - just under 12 kg - it would still be a fairly normal weight today. 

A report from the 1908 Stanley Cycle Show, held in Islington's Royal Agricultural Hall, shows that the company continued to produce innovative, lightweight bikes:
Of course, the new "diagonal" frame is the attraction here. It is designed to give all the strength of the old Centaur frame while minimising vertical vibration. Other novelties are the Centaur spring-forks and spring seat-pillar, which agents should make a point of seeing, and recommending to customers who feel vibration. A remarkable machine is the new road racer at £6 10s., weighing, without guards, 27 lbs. On the best quality Centaurs it will be noticed that there are no clips for the pump pegs and brake fittings, these being brazed to the forks and main down tube. The light-weight roadster is a superbly-finished mount, scaling only 2E4 lbs., with guards complete.

The Centaur Company are showing a magnificent specimen of road racer. This has a 3.75in. tread, steel rims and detachable tyres, a front rim brake, fixed wheel, straight (duplex) chain stay, and comes out at 20.5bs., selling at £10 10s. retail. This machine should appeal to agents who have a speedy clientele, and it is supplied with either a horizontal or a sloping down top tube.

For 1909 every Centaur at £7 10s. and over will be fitted with Dunlop tyres. Mr. W. J. Welch, the firm's London manager, told us that he was expecting a very interesting machine from the works, but up to the time of our visit it had not arrived. This is an "all weather" bicycle, enamelled all over, except for a small plated disc on the extreme rear end of the back mudguard, the object of which is to reflect the light from the head-lamps of an overtaking motor car, and indicate the position of the cyclist. This extremely ingenious device is the idea of the rider to whose order this particular machine is built, and who is an active member of one of the hard-riding London clubs. The Centaur Co. do not seem to have lost ground during the three or four years they have been absent from the Show; their designs, finish, and prices are right up-to-date. and agents and public alike are pleased to see the famous old Coventry house again in evidence at the Agricultural Hall.
When Edward Mushing, who had co-founded the business with George Gilbert, died in 1910 the company was taken over by Humber. Although they now produced the bicycles in Stoke-on-Trent, the name lasted a few more years until 1915. (There were also Centaur motorcycles from 1901 to 1914.) 

This sign, then, is at least a century old. 

Monday, 31 October 2016

Marylebone Coach Station

There is, of course, no coach station in Marylebone. However, I discovered on a tour of the railway station that one was almost built on its site in the 1980s.

Today, the station is thriving and getting busier as passenger numbers rise and new services to Oxford are added. In the 1980s, though, its future was looking bleak. The number of passengers had fallen, only local services ran from the station, the stock was aged, the station building was unlisted, and both Baker Street and Paddington had enough spare capacity to pick up Marylebone's passengers.

Marylebone Station, April 1969, by Hugh Llewelyn

Road travel was obviously the future, and Victoria Coach Station was busy enough to generate complaints from local residents. Wasn't the answer obvious? The station could be demolished, and the line towards Harrow converted into a high-speed bus way.
Marylebone Station c1976, by Hugh Llewelyn

Professor Peter Hall had been commissioned by the National Bus Company to investigate this idea. He had already published Making Better Use of Railways in 1976 - the better use being conversion to roads! That report had argued for the conversion of Liverpool Street Station to a busway (to the disdain of New Scientist who pointed out that among other flaws, it 'failed to consider adequately what happens at junctions'). It's no surprise, then, that his 1983 report was enthusiastic about the Marylebone coach station, suggesting it could be used by quarter of a million coaches each year, with its coachway connecting to the A40. 

Happily, since Marylebone Station is rather lovely, demolishing it in favour of a coach terminal was not the obvious answer for everyone. The plans got as far as formal consultation, at which point there was extensive opposition. There was also concern about the practicality of these plans and the ability of Baker Street to absorb former Marylebone passengers - thanks to the introduction of travelcards, Underground passenger numbers were growing - the public inquiry was repeatedly postponed and the proposal was eventually dropped. 

Under new management in the late 1980s, the station was renovated (funded by selling off part of its site). New trains were bought, signalling updated, commuter numbers rose, and services were extended as far as Birmingham. The building is now Grade-II listed. Marylebone has made the most of its new lease of life: today's lively terminal is a very long way from those dreadful years when a coach station seemed a better idea. 

My tour of Marylebone Station was a London Transport Museum Friends event. The story of the coach station proposal is covered in much more detail on London Reconnections - which also has a fascinating comment from the senior civil servant involved. 

Images of Marylebone Station in 1969 and c1976 shared on a Creative Commons licence by Hugh Llewelyn

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Through the Victorian Looking Glass

Linley Sambourne, cartoonist for Punch, made 18 Stafford Terrace his family home in 1875. It stayed in the family, barely changed, well into the twentieth century. It has been open to the public since 1980, run first by the Victorian Society and now by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. 

The Aesthetic interiors are a microcosm of so many things we associate with Victorian homes: ornaments everywhere, occasional tables, fancy lampshades, stained glass, William Morris papers, crowded mantlepieces. It is also lined with some of the thousands of photos taken by Sambourne, including many used as models for his cartoons. And there are lots of mirrors...

Monday, 17 October 2016

Holland House: a strange centenary

2016 is an unusual centenary year for a building, because 1916 was the middle of the First World War. However, as the name suggests, Holland House in the City of London was built by a Dutch company, Wm. H.Müller and Co; the Netherlands were neutral.

Wartime austerity and material shortages don't seem to have caused too many problems, as the building has some lovely details. Outside, a black granite ship by Joseph Mendes da Costa reflects the company's main business of shipping - although they were also involved in other fields such as steel and mining. 

Turn the corner to the front of the building, and it offers an extraordinary vertical composition. That is deliberate: the street was narrow, so this was the view most visitors got. Today, however, the opposite side of the road has been opened up to form part of the Gherkin's piazza, so you can get a clearer view front-on. The glazed terracotta bricks of the facade were hand-made in Delft, designed to protect against smog and fire, and transported to London on the company's own ships

The architect was Dutch: Hendrik Petrus Berlage. A leading practitioner in the Netherlands, this is his only London work and one of the first steel-framed buildings in Europe. It is no coincidence that he had visited the United States in 1911, where he was influenced by the steel-framed buildings he saw there. 

However, in 1919 he stopped working with Müller and Co. The interior was not quite complete so a Belgian, Henri van de Velde, was responsible for the mahogany panelling (with wood from one of the company's ships) and furniture. 

The stained glass windows and lanterns are the work of Bart Van Der Leck. He also designed the gorgeous mosaics which line the lobbies on each floor.

In the basement, the lower part of the mosaics is a glorious marine blue, recalling the sea which was so central to the occupants' activities.

The site is somewhat awkwardly shaped: there's another building, Renown House, in the corner because its owners wouldn't sell to Müller. Berlage addressed some of the resulting issues with a central lightwell which brings daylight into the building. 

Müller have long since ceased to occupy the building. Subsequent occupants have removed many of the original features, but a 2007 restoration of what remains has helped to highlight how very special Holland House is. 

Monday, 10 October 2016

Country house telephones

Although today, we visit stately homes for their historical interest, they were once eager to be technologically up-to-date. Their wealthy owners could afford new innovations such as the telephone, and these have left their traces on many properties - in kitchens and estate offices as well as 'above stairs'. 

The country house enjoyed a golden age at the same time that the telephone network was developing. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. That same year, Tivadar Puskas came up with the idea of a telephone exchange. W H Preece, Engineer-in-Chief of the Post Office, brought the first pair of telephones to Britain in July 1877; the first long-distance calls in the country came the following year, when Bell himself demonstrated the telephone to Queen Victoria at Osborne House. The Telephone Company Ltd was formed, with the first trial of commercial long-distance calls taking place on 1 November 1878; the company launched with fewer than ten subscribers. By the end of 1879, it had 200. However, the telephone was still something used primarily for business, with exchanges only in major cities. 

At the end of 1880, the judgment in Attorney-General v Edison Telephone Company of London Ltd saw telephones placed under Post Office control, on the basis they were a form of telegraphy. The Post Office nonetheless licensed other companies for some years, as well as opening further exchanges by converting telegraph exchanges. A national network was developing, and 1884 saw the opening of public call offices where members of the public could make telephone calls. These soon evolved into telephone boxes. Perhaps an even more significant marker of the increasing use of telephones for personal calls was the introduction of cheaper calls outside business hours in 1903.

Thus the telephone quickly took a key role in modern communications. That is symbolised rather nicely by two 1890s putti having a telephone conversation outside the former Astor Estate office at 2 Temple Place!

Country estates were often significant businesses in their own right, so having telephones made sense. Thus there is a telephone in the estate office at Petworth, complete with instructions. 'To call exchange place receiver to ear and listen. Give name of exchange & no. required. Replace telephone when finished. Report faults to Post Office.' (That last instruction may tell us something about the reliability of the system.) Another factor was that  these monied households could afford the subscriptions and call costs - and had similarly affluent associates, friends and relatives to receive the calls.

These households were also large enough to benefit from internal telephone systems. They offered a more discreet and efficient alternative to servants' bells: thus Petworth's connected to the kitchen quarters, with lines labelled by room name.

Throughout the twentieth century, the network expanded, technology improved and prices became more affordable - but it took time. Telephone calls remained expensive in the 1930s, when the Courtaulds built their home at Eltham Palace. They had a private internal telephone exchange, installed by Siemens; but guests had to make external calls from a payphone.  

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Shedding light on Lambeth

Turn your back on Lambeth Palace, and across the road towards Lambeth Bridge is a rather fine lamp post. There's no mystery about how and when it got here, because the base is decorated with the words The Vestry of the Parish of Lambeth and the date 1856

The Vestry of St Mary's had been responsible for the parish for three centuries. However, it was replaced by a secular Lambeth Vestry under the Metropolis Local Management Act 1855, so this lamp post appeared when the body was still brand-new. No wonder they wanted such prominent branding!

That same Act also created the Metropolitan Board of Works, which would employ Bazalgette to create London's sewerage system. Among its achievements was the building of Albert Embankment, alongside which the light now stands. That's not the only major change to its surroundings, though: the Lambeth Bridge was not opened until 1862. Proposals to build a bridge here had been made for some time, and continued despite the building of Westminster Bridge in 1750 - especially as that led to the closure of the horseferry which used to operate here. (It's still commemorated in the name of Horseferry Road, which runs from the north end of Lambeth Bridge.) However, the long-awaited bridge was already rusting badly in 1879, and by 1910 it had to be closed to traffic. Delayed by the First World War, a replacement bridge was agreed in 1924 and opened in 1932.

The typically 1930s lamps of the bridge are quite a contrast in style to their less starkly geometric, more ornate neighbour. As well as lettering, it features arms including a rather stout, blobby creature which is in fact a lamb. Yes, it's a pun on Lambeth. The palace below is self-explanatory, the scroll with the word HYDE less so. 

Today, the lamp is powered by electricity. However, it originally ran on gas provided by the London Gas Co whose works were a little way upriver near Vauxhall Bridge: notice the crossbars which allowed the lamplighter to secure his ladder. 

And as for who manufactured this cast-iron lamp? It's no surprise to find the name of the ubiquitous W Macfarlane of Glasgow. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

C a mistake?

Dulwich is full of historical details, but here are a couple of letter Cs which may give you pause.

The first is on the former Grammar School of the College of God's Gift. A smaller building than the name might suggest, it was established in 1842 to educate 60 poor boys. This was paid for by the charitable foundation established by the eminent actor (and contemporary of Shakespeare) Edward Alleyne - also responsible for the rather grander Dulwich College. The grammar school building was designed by Sir Charles Barry, who is rather better known for the Houses of Parliament

Since the Houses of Parliament and the remodelling of Trafalgar Square were both underway while the school was built, perhaps Barry didn't pay a great deal of attention to its execution. That might explain how a mistake went unnoticed in the lettering above the door: the capital C on 'College' and D of 'Dulwich' have been swapped and reversed!

Several decades later, North Dulwich Station was built by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, with bridge attached; the architect was Barry's son, Charles Barry Jnr. On the bridge are fine plaques commemorating this, and it appears the C/D confusion has happened again. Shouldn't that be '1866 AD'?

In fact, it shouldn't. This time, the letters are quite correct as they stand not for anno domini but for Alleyn's College (Dulwich College), who owned the land


Monday, 19 September 2016

Ghost signs (123): Light Capsules

The dilemma of ghost sign restoration is beautifully resolved in Light Capsules, a collaboration between designer and artist Craig Winslow and Sam Roberts of Ghostsigns. For a few hours, faded signs are brought back to vivid life - by projections, which allow the sign to be both restored and untouched. It's quite an experience to see. 

Light Capsules runs all week, over a number of different venues, from 6-8pm each evening. Wednesday's event is a little different, as signs from around the world will be projected onto a blank wall - accompanied by cocktails and live lettering demonstrations.

Part of the London Design Festival, Light Capsules also coincides with the launch of the Ghostsigns Tours App, available for iPhone and Android. It currently features a walking tour of Bankside, with Stoke Newington soon to be added.

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