Sunday, 22 November 2015

Postman's Park (32): Thomas Griffin

Garton Hill & Co were sugar refiners who had moved production from Southampton to Battersea in 1882. Their products included a specialist brewing sugar, Garton's Saccharum, described as fully inverted, free from impurities, and able to 'brew Beer surpassing even Burton Ales in brightness and endurance'. The company would continue (later under the name Manbre & Garton) until taken over by Tate & Lyle in 1976.

In 1899, 21-year-old labourer Thomas Griffin suffered a fatal accident at the refinery. He was working in the hydraulic room when he heard an explosion. It came from a room where his colleague F Briggs worked, and he rushed into the steam shouting 'my mate, my mate'. When he emerged a few minutes later, he was terribly scalded; his workmates covered him in wet cloths and rushed him to Bolingbroke Hospital in Wandsworth. 

At the hospital, scalded all over and in shock, Griffin soon died from his injuries - just a few days before his marriage was due to take place. Awfully, his death was in vain: Briggs had already escaped unhurt. 


Thursday, 12 November 2015

Ghost signs (119): J&J Goddard

J&J Goddard's name stands out boldly, rising above the cluttered street-level signage around Goodge Street Station. It isn't strictly a ghost sign, since it's not painted onto the brick but tiled. However, it's too nice to ignore - I particularly like the careful, square full stops. 

J&J Goddard sold musical supplies including harmoniums and organ parts, and occupied 68 Tottenham Court Road from 1842 until the 1960s. Today, there are no more organ reeds or tuning forks: their place has been taken by a Scientologist storefront offering 'personality tests'. 

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Postman's Park (31): Edward Morris

One of the peculiarities of the Watts Memorial is that it only records the deeds of those who died as a result of heroic acts. We can generally do no more than speculate as to what incidents went unrecorded as a result, but sometimes the gaps are obvious, as in the incident which led to the death of Edward Morris.

Edward was 10 years old and had gone swimming with his 9-year-old friend Sidney Probyn Moody one bank holiday. Bathing in the Grand Junction Canal near Wormwood Scrubs, Sidney became exhausted. Edward went to his rescue but Sidney, panicking, pulled him under and both were drowned. So far, a typical incident for Postman's Park, as retold on the plaque:


However, the acts of bravery did not end there. While some passers-by on the towpath simply walked away, two fishermen went to the rescue. They were James Brown and Charles Simmonds, described as 'a cripple'. Despite his disability, Simmonds succeeded in pulling out Edward and Sidney. Sadly, both were dead.

The coroner and jury praised the two men, particularly Simmonds, 'for their pluck'. However, having survived the tragedy, their names are unmentioned on the Watts Memorial.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Sinews of War

It may be best-known for its eighteenth-century collections and The Laughing Cavalier, but the Wallace Collection also has a fantastic armoury collection. It's well-placed, then, to host an exhibition marking the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.

There's another connection, too: when Laurence Olivier made his famous film of Henry V, his historical advisor was Sir James Mann - former curator at the Wallace Collection.  The 1944 film has created the most famous images of the battle (but also helped cement some of Shakespeare's most enduring mythology about it, as well as adding a few extras).

The Sinews of War: Arms and Armour in the Age of Agincourt is small but packed full of information and enlightenment. Prominent among the myths it dispels is that the armour worn was so heavy that knights could barely move. In fact, it weighed between 20-35kg: that sounds a lot, but 20kg is pretty comfortable when worn on the body, and even 35kg isn't an issue if you're a fit, strong soldier. You could certainly still mount a horse, and wouldn't need a crane to get onto it! (Mann ensured Olivier knew this ... which is why in the film, it's a French knight who is craned onto horseback.)

Current curator Tobias Capwell understands these things better than most: as well as his academic knowledge of the period's armour, he has practical experience thanks to having ridden in armour - and jousted - extensively. He busted some more myths at an Agincourt-themed evening organised by London Calling: the English were outnumbered by the French, but not nearly as heavily as Shakespeare suggested; it wasn't a victory against the odds as, numbers aside, most factors were in Henry's favour; the English army was not exhausted; and no one fighting in the battle was simultaneously suffering from dysentry!

The exhibition surprises in other ways. The chivalric ethos could be very different to modern ideals, so we have the jarring sight of a pair of gauntlets engraved with the word 'love'. It is not partnered with 'hate' in a mediaeval equivalent to knuckle tattoos, but repeated as an expression of what inspired knights in battle.

A tour of the permanent collections brought more discoveries.The biggest is that the displays are virtually unchanged since 1908, making them a museum of a museum. They represent two collections - of the comte de Nieuwerkerke, Napoleon III's Director of Fine Arts, and of Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick - both purchased by Sir Richard Wallace in 1871. Almost all the pieces in these displays were made for fighting rather than display - even an extraordinarily elaborate dragon's-head helmet. 

The Sinews of War runs until 31 December 2015; admission to it and the rest of the Wallace Collection is free. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Forgotten Stories

London's Royal Docks have changed drastically since the size of container ships meant that cargo traffic moved to Tilbury. They finally closed to commercial traffic in 1981, leaving the area in decline. Further east and less well-connected than the Isle of Dogs, they didn't share in its breakneck transformation - but redevelopment has reshaped the area and is continuing. Royal Victoria Dock has new buildings such as the Crystal and ExCel Centre (not to mention one end of the lightly-used cable car); London City Airport sits between the Royal Albert and King George V Docks; the University of East London has a campus at Royal Albert Dock - and more developments are on the way. 

However, the Royal Docks Management Authority didn't want the area's history to be forgotten. They have therefore sought out the stories of those who lived and worked around the docks in their heyday, and the first phase of the Forgotten Stories project was launched at the Crystal on Friday. It includes 28 films highlighting different aspects of life in the Docks communities.

The contributors all have fascinating stories to tell - from the fun Stan Dyson had making his own gunpowder as a boy, to the hard working life of Patricia Holland's father who had to beg for work as a stevedore each day, and the tragedy of Johnny Ringwood's friends dying in a V2 rocket attack. The dock landscape may have altered almost beyond recognition, but these short films help to keep its past alive.

Explore the Forgotten Stories films here

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Postman's Park (30): Elizabeth Boxall

When Elizabeth Boxall died, ultimately as the result of an injury sustained trying to stop a runaway horse, attention focused not upon her bravery but upon the medical treatment she subsequently received. It is fortunate, then, that the Watts Memorial restored the balance by emphasising her brave actions:


At the inquest, by contrast, the injury was just the first point in a history of alleged medical negligence. There were claims that she was 'butchered in the London Hospital' and a verdict of death from shock following an operation there was given. This finding drew an angry response from William Nixon, the hospital's House Governor, who wrote to Lloyd's News to protest at the conduct and reporting of the inquest.

A history of Elizabeth Boxall's life after her attempted rescue can be reconstructed. She was kicked by the horse, and the injury did not heal but was further damaged by a fall. On the day of the fall, Boxall was taken to the London Hospital and cancer was found in the broken limb. An emergency amputation was performed, and for several months she seemed to be recovering but then the cancer recurred. A higher amputation of the limb was performed, following which Boxall was sent to Folkestone to convalesce. However, in June it became apparent that the cancer had spread to her lungs and she was sent home. The first the hospital heard of her death was the newspaper account of the inquest. Nixon was sceptical of whether a jury aware of the facts could have found that Boxall died from shock four months after the operation.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Dinosaur revival

A few days ago, we heard the news that Crystal Palace's Victorian dinosaurs are to be repaired. Their Friends have produced an entertaining video to explain why the repairs are needed.

It's good news, because the dinosaurs are truly special. Here's my report from a few years ago on why:

When the Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park to its new site, the surrounding park was also intended as a place of entertainment and education. Nowhere were those two aims better combined than in the dinosaur park (the first in the world). Entertaining as it might be to wander around scenic lakes with prehistoric animals at every turn, the visitor was also expected to learn.

The creator of this section was none other than Professor Richard Owen, the man who invented the word 'dinosaur'. Sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse-Hawkins, the creatures were placed to create a timeline illustrating the new and shocking idea that such animals had existed millions of years ago. (This was all happening in 1854, five years before Darwin's Origin of the Species was published).

The park's prehistoric inhabitants haven't always had a happy time. The display was never completed because money ran out - otherwise we might have had a mammoth and a dodo there as well - and by the late twentieth century had fallen badly into disrepair. However, recent restoration has returned the models to their full Victorian glory, complete with original colours, and resisted the temptation to correct them in light of later discoveries. Thus the ichthyosaurus is shown coming onto land (it couldn't), missing its dorsal fin, and with an incorrectly-shaped tail.

The megatherium (which should be dark brown) looks as if it's playing hide and seek. Its tree is the Victorian original; in fact, it went on to grow so much that it broke the animal's arm off. No risk of that happening again: the tree is now dead.

Another attempt to mingle model and reality was the megaloceros, which originally incorporated genuine fossilised antlers. However, since fossils are stone and the models are concrete on hollow iron frames, the antlers proved too heavy and were replaced with replicas.

The final educational feature for the Victorian visitor was the illustration of geological strata. A cliff complete with coal measures, ironstone and fault lines combined lessons in geology and in the raw materials of industry. An afternoon in the park had become an improving experience!

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Postman's Park (29): PC Robert Wright


Unfortunately, his bravery was in vain: although he thought he heard a woman scream and rushed to rescue her, there is nothing in the inquest report to suggest that anyone was in the house. In fact, the family who lived there above their oil and colour shop had gone on holiday to Gravesend.

There was another problem at the scene of the fire: some of the firemen were drunk. The evidence suggested that they had already become inebriated before attending the fire; the inquest was assured that their conduct would 'receive the serious attention of the authorities.' This suggests that the Croydon fire brigade was not quite as disciplined a body as its London counterpart.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Poplar's Festival estate

The Lansbury Estate in Poplar was designed both as a place to live and as an exhibit in the 1951 Festival of Britain. After the bombing damage of the Second World War, housing was of enormous importance. Thus the Lansbury was to offer a model of contemporary architecture at a moment when neighbourhoods rather than 'icons' were an architectural priority. 

It was serving a very real need: Poplar had been badly bombed, and reconstruction was urgently required. The 1943 County of London Plan emphasised the importance of preserving community identities, including through the creation of community spaces.

Architect Frederick Gibberd was heavily involved in the planning of new towns and neighbourhoods (he would both design and live in Harlow New Town), and had a reputation for delivering good-quality social housing. He argued that the Living Architecture Exhibition should 'take a bombed or cleared site of four to six acres as near as possible to the site of the main Exhibition; to develop it as a cross section of a Neighbourhood, with such other additional permanent structures as may be necessary to complete the visual picture, providing such buildings are of ultimate use to the neighbourhood'. The site would be handed over to the local authority once the Festival ended. 

Of various sites suggested, this one was chosen because it was a bomb site; the surrounding buildings were felt to be more attractive than those of other suggested sites; plans were not too advanced; and visitors could travel to it by riverbus. It was to include not only housing but also a market and pedestrianised shopping centre, schools, churches and pubs. Such an ambitious project inevitably suffered difficulties of time and budget: land had to be acquired, residents moved, skilled workers recruited, and permissions obtained. Amazingly, however, the exhibit was completed more-or-less on time and the first tenants moved in on 14 February 1951. 

Many of the exhibits were temporary: a 200-foot tall construction crane, the Rosie Lee Cafe, and themed pavilions. Once these had been toured, visitors were sent to walk an approved route around the Lansbury - although unfortunately, it proved easy for them to get lost! Indeed, the Living Architecture Exhibition had something of a Cinderella status within the Festival. There were no opening or closing ceremonies, and the 86,000 visitors were a tiny proportion of the 8.5 million who visited the South Bank. Many critics found the designs uninspiring (reduced budgets hadn't helped), although those who lived there would go on to assess it more positively. 

Nonetheless, surviving traces add rather jaunty notes to the estate. Drainpipe hoppers have the festival logo, and there is a Festival Inn. 

Perhaps the most distinctive manifestation of Gibberd's vision is the landmark Chrisp Street Market clocktower. It was designed as a folly, an enjoyable centrepiece rather than a terribly functional piece of architecture. There are two staircases (intended for ascending and descending), and sides left deliberately open.

The Festival site was just the first phase of the Lansbury Estate, named for Poplar's Socialist councillor and MP George Lansbury who had died in 1940. In fact, it was not completed until 1982. Long before that, the low-rise housing of the first stage gave way to high-rise flats, while economic and social decline also blighted the estate in the latter decades of last century. 

Just across the road from Chrisp Street Market is the most famous of these, albeit part of Brownfield Estate rather than Lansbury: the Balfron Tower. Designed by Erno Goldfinger, it is Grade II listed and currently being refurbished. Its story reflects many current issues with social housing, with residents being moved out and the flats due to be sold as private luxury homes.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Postman's Park (28): William Drake

Hyde Park was long a fashionable place for horse and carriage rides. At the same time, it is surrounded by busy roads, including Park Lane. This was the scene for an accident in 1869.

Mademoiselle Titiens and a friend were entering Hyde Park in a brougham, through Stanhope Gate off Park Lane. However, a wagonette crossed in front of the carriage; in his attempt to perform an emergency stop, Mlle Titiens' carriage driver broke the carriage-pole and lost control of the horses. Luckily, help was at hand: passer-by William Drake and a policeman ran over to stop the horses, preventing a serious accident to the carriage occupants. During the incident, Drake was kicked on the knee by one of the animals.

The Mlle Titiens referred to seems to have been the opera singer Terese Titiens (Tietjens). Born in Hamburg, she had moved to London in 1858 and was considered one of the great sopranos of the nineteenth century. She would continue performing until shortly before her own death in 1877.

What may have appeared a relatively minor injury to Drake turned to pyaemia (a form of blood poisoning with fever and abcesses). As a result, Drake died. However, there was some consolation for his family: a representative of Mlle Titiens assured the inquest that she would amply care for his dependents. He was also recognised in Postman's Park: