Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Happy anniversary, London Historians!

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've probably noticed a few times that I've visited places thanks to London Historians. This friendly, diverse society for everyone interested in the capital's history is celebrating its fifth birthday today. There's even a very good offer for new members until midnight tonight (Wednesday). 

I'd recommend membership very highly - and to encourage you, here are some of the posts inspired by my own activities as a member:


An exploration of Hogarth's Chiswick - and Hogarth at the Cartoon Museum

A walk through the Woolwich Foot Tunnel on its centenary.  

City livery halls including the Vintners' Hall; Drapers' Hall; and Stationers' Hall.

A night-time visit to the Tower of London.

And a trip out of London, to Compton - home of the studio and gallery of GF Watts (founder of the Postman's Park memorial) and the amazing cemetery chapel by his wife Mary Seton Fraser Tytler.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Postman's Park (23): Richard Farris

Both the report in Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper and the memorial tile in Postman's Park treat this story as straightforward. Richard Farris dived into the Surrey Canal to save Eliza Arlott, who jumped in when distressed by something her sweetheart had said. However, one wonders why he 'accosted' the witness but did not try to prevent her jumping or seek help from passers-by.
It appeared from the evidence of a young man, named Thomas Charles Hodgson, of 29, Stanton-street, Commercial-road, that on Monday night last, as he was about to cross Globe-bridge, which spans the Surrey canal between Peckham and Camberwell, he was accosted by Farris, with whom he was acquainted. Farris pointed to a girl who was leaning on the parapet of the bridge, with her face buried in her hands, and said to the witness that if she (meaning the girl) went into the water, he would go in after her. The witness (Hodgson) noticed the girl, but saying nothing, passed over the bridge, and entered the Surrey View public-house. Five minutes afterwards he heard an alarm of somebody being in the water, and rushed to procure the drags. The young woman had been greatly distressed about something her sweetheart had said to her. The jury returned a verdict, “That Farris had been accidentally drowned whilst humanely endeavouring to save the life of Eliza Arlott, who had committed suicide while in a state of temporary insanity.”
The undercurrents to this story remain mysterious, but the event itself is marked in the Watts Memorial:


Friday, 21 August 2015

The empty lake

 A pretty pastoral scene in Brittany ... except there's something not right about those trees.

A jetty leads nowhere.

Landing stages stretch out into the void. 

This is the Lac de Guerledan, a 300-hectare freshwater lake formed by the building of a hydroelectric barrage in the 1920s. At the time, the scattered rural population had little access to - or apparent interest in - electricity. However, if the towns were to be supplied then a Breton source of power was needed - and the dam was proposed. Ground was broken in 1923, and the construction site formally opened in 1924, although work would not be completed until 1930. 

While much maintenance can be carried out on a regular basis, some tasks require the emptying of the lake. It used to be a ten-yearly event, but improvements in technology mean that it's thirty years since the last emptying; and it will be at least as long until the next one. This, then, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stroll along the lake bed. 

Drowned homes and orchards have reappeared for the summer. 

The locks, now dry, are a reminder that before the lake was formed, the Nantes-Brest Canal ran through.  (For this stretch, it followed the course of the river Blavet.)

The cause of this transformation, the barrage is undergoing a complete technical examination to ensure its long-term safety. Works can be carried out more easily, and otherwise-inaccessible areas inspected. 

The lake will refill naturally from the end of the summer. In the meantime, however, it offers one of Brittany's strangest landscapes. 

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Postman's Park (22): Joseph Andrew Ford

We have already seen that the escape ladders operated by the London Fire Brigade were not infallible: George Lee had died in 1876 when his broke. The main danger was the fire itself, which could spread to the escape and those on it. The issue of how best to make these machines fire-resistant was therefore a crucial one, and had been considered in some detail at the inquest of another fireman, Joseph Andrew Ford, five years earlier.

As his memorial explains,


The inquest evidence established that he fell to his death from the top of the fire ladder after the canvas chute and its wire netting support burned through. The coroner and jury gave most of their attention to the question of whether his death had been a preventable tragedy.

The Society for the Protection of Life from Fire thought that it was. They had always used copper gauze rather than wire mesh: it was more expensive, but they felt that it was also more fire-resistant. A fire-escape manufacturer, Mr Clarke (who had recently lost his contract with the Fire Brigade) suggested that his secret formula for rendering canvas anti-inflammable might have helped too.

Various witnesses from the fire brigade - including its head, Captain Shaw - gave evidence that in fact, the fire escapes were as good as they could be and the higher cost of copper gauze had not been a factor. Rather, the fire officers themselves had decided that they preferred the netting: it was stronger, less likely to crack and get damaged when the escape was moved, and made the escape easier to transport in the wind. As for rendering the canvas uninflammable, alum had been tried but it washed out in the rain.

The jury's verdict was accidental death. However, they were clearly unconvinced by Captain Shaw and his colleagues since they added the rider that
We are of the opinion that the fire escape, by falling from which the deceased met with his death, was not constructed in the most efficient manner, and are of the opinion that had the shoot [sic] of the escape been covered with copper gauze instead of wire netting, and the canvas rendered uninflammable, the death of the deceased would have been avoided.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Heavenly stairs

Perhaps the most extraordinary stairs I've walked up are those leading to the Chapter House in Wells Cathedral. First, they are very old, built in the years 1265 to 1280, and show the wear of centuries of footsteps. Second, they do not fork apart to two doorways, but rather flow together through the space. For the Chapter House, take the right-hand flight; straight ahead is the route to Vicars' Close.

Finally, their destination is pretty breathtaking. Completed in 1306, the Chapter House is an octagonal room lined with seats, each watched over by carved faces.

They would be attention-grabbing in any other context, but here the vaulted ceiling is truly the star. 


Wednesday, 29 July 2015

150 feet above Whitehall

The Banqueting House is currently hidden behind scaffolding, thanks to restoration works - but what's happening behind the hoardings? I got the chance to find out on a scaffold tour which saw me climb to the level of the building's rooftop. 

Built in 1619-1622 by Inigo Jones, the Banqueting House was a Palladian addition to the Palace of Whitehall - and almost the only part of the palace to survive a devastating fire in 1698. As a result, the royal court moved to St James; the building became a chapel and then a military museum, before reverting to use for state occasions; and today it is surrounded not by royal residences but by government buildings. 

Being four centuries old, the building needs careful treatment, and at the moment its roof and facades are undergoing conservation. The stone is being carefully cleaned and spots of damage repaired; leadwork is being replaced. Given that much of the work is being done very close to the House's most famous (and flammable) feature, its Rubens ceiling, careful rules against 'hot work' are in place to minimise fire risks. 

Much of the work is done off-site, with pieces shaped before being brought up the scaffolding and fitted into place. That means there's plenty of activity at ground level. 

Climbing up nine levels of scaffolding may be disconcerting, but it allows you to get close to details usually only seen from a distance. 

Further down, scaffolding once more stands on the spot where the execution scaffold for Charles I was erected. It is therefore possible to stand on the spot of his beheading and look across to its commemoration on the clock opposite: a black spot marking 2pm, the time of his death. 

I visited on an event for members of Historic Royal Palaces

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Postman's Park (21): Thomas Simpson at Highgate Ponds

In January 1885, Highgate Ponds had frozen over, making them appear perfect for skating. At 5pm on a Sunday evening, twilight may have been hovering but there were still about 200 people skating on the second pond. So far, it conjures up a picture from an old-fashioned biscuit tin lid: young ladies in ankle-length skirts decorously gliding across the ice, escorted by young men in formal hats. However, since it ended with a memorial plaque, we can guess what happened next...

The ice cracked, and a large portion gave way, plunging some people into the freezing-cold water. While tragedy was not averted, many lives were certainly served by others' rescue efforts. Above all, Thomas Simpson rescued several people. He wasn't an ice skater himself, but a farm labourer of about fifty whose employer Mr Ward rented the pond fields. He got into the water to bring one young man out - a difficult and exhausting rescue. However, when Simpson stooped down to rescue yet another stranded skater, the ice he was standing on gave way; this, combined with the cold and physical strain he had already undergone, meant that he was soon sinking. Although he was pulled from the water, he died very soon afterwards.

The inquest jury reached a verdict of accidental death. They also made two recommendations: first, that 'the Royal Humane Society should be respectfully requested to consider the subject with a view to establishing their life-saving apparatus and drags'; and second, that 'some authorized person should be stationed at the ponds, when ice was on the water, to protect the public from danger.'

Simpson's memorial reads:


Engraving: LIFE archive, 'An Idyll on the Ice', 1900

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Ghost signs (117): Observatory Street, Oxford

Here's a fragment of a painted sign, peeping shyly out from behind a lamp post.

The words 'Park End' are clearly decipherable, but the text above is more mysterious. Two letters or numbers and an ampersand, but which are they, and what do they mean?

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Postman's Park (20): fireman George Lee

Modern tabloids have some terrible headlines, but it would be wrong to assume that the print media of the nineteenth century were necessarily more sensitive. One newspaper reported the fire which killed George Lee and another under the title 'FIRE AND LOSS OF LIFE, EXCITING SCENE IN CLERKENWELL'.

However, the events of that July evening in 1876 were certainly dramatic. John Smith, a hatter in St John Street, was in his shop at eight in the evening when he noticed that smoke was coming from the back room. Before he had chance to warn the lodgers upstairs, the fire had cut off access to them and they were trapped.

A wheeled fire-escape machine was brought to the premises. Such fire ladders were originally provided by the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, but were now under the responsibility of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. They could reach up to 60 feet high and had a canvas chute so that people being rescued did not have to descend the ladder rungs. Each ladder was kept locally in a watchbox, accompanied by a fireman who kept watch at night and was responsible for operating the machine if it was needed. The firemen's life was not easy: they lived at the fire station and worked for low wages. Most were ex-seamen as Eyre Massey Shaw, head of the Brigade, valued their training and discipline. One of his advertisements for firemen read:
Candidates for appointment must be seamen; they should be under the age of 25, must measure not less that 37 inches round the chest, and are generally preferred at least 5 feet 5 inches in height. They must be men of general intelligence, and able to read and write; and they have to produce certificates of birth and testimonials as to character, service etc. Each man has to prove his strength by raising a fire escape single handed with the tackle reversed. 
After they have been measured, had their strength tested and been approved by the chief officer as stout, strong, healthy looking, intelligent and in all other respects apparently eligible, they are sent for medical examination before the surgeon, who, according to his judgement, either rejects or passes them, in either case giving a certificate.
Two such firemen - one the man responsible for the machine - climbed the fire-escape to the second floor of the St John Street shop and brought one man down. They then rescued a badly-burned woman, but the flames were now threatening the escape itself. A third woman was brought out of the building to the escape, but it was now on fire and its 'chocks' gave way. As a result, it broke into two and the woman, the two fireman and another volunteer fell to the ground. One of the firemen, George Lee, was holding the woman in his arms.

The woman who fell with the escape and her children, aged 17 and 15, were taken to hospital. The charred remains of another woman were found later in the building. The two firemen were also in need of hospital treatment; George Lee would die of his injuries about two weeks later. He had suffered severe burns which were the cause of 'lockjaw'. Lee was buried at Abney Park Cemetery, at a funeral attended by police, firemen and thousands of members of the public. At his inquest Massey Shaw, chief of the Fire Brigade, described his conduct as 'the greatest act of bravery ever shown by a fireman'. His courage is recorded (not entirely accurately) on the Watts Memorial:


Friday, 17 July 2015

Kindness of strangers

Still visible on New Bond Street is this simple but effective vintage technology - although it does depend upon helpful passers-by!