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.



Sunday, 18 September 2016

Electrical Moderne


Tucked behind a residential street in Woking is a small concrete building. It has an Art Deco look, not unattractive but not obviously exciting. 


However, the interior is a very different matter. Built in 1936, this very functional space created by Swedish firm ASEA is full of Moderne style. Indeed, at this period Southern had adopted Streamline Moderne as its house style - as can also be seen at nearby Woking Station.



We are in Southern Railway's electrical control room, built as part of their programme of electrification. It continued in use until the 1990s, its fabulous features intact. Even the floors are elegant, with green and black bands at the edges.



The wall panels combine a Deco colour scheme and stylish silver strips with track diagrams. Now that the railway was electrified, operators needed to ensure that the electrical supply was available when trains were running and switched off while work was being carried out. Lights indicated the status of the supply, bakelite switches allowed it to be controlled. 


Caps were placed over switches when the supply was off, so that it couldn't be switched back on unthinkingly. 


The telephone exchange at the main desk brought information in and out. This original control desk has acquired some more modern paraphernalia: several generations of telephones can be seen here. 


The four uplighters running along the centre of the oval room are copper and cast iron. They don't just look lovely: combined with the curved ceiling, they ensure that light is even and there are no obscuring shadows. Those same curves also enhanced the acoustics of the room, so that one operator could easily hear the other even when they worked at opposite ends. (With a number of visitors and guides in the room, it was rather noisy!)


Outside the control room is another treat, albeit more functional than fancy. The corridors leading to the entrance are lined with the backs of those glamorous control boards, electro-mechanical switchgear on view. 



Of Southern's original five control rooms, Woking alone survives intact. It is now listed, so should be surprising visitors well into the future - and reminding us that it was not only the Victorians who invested so much care into the appearance of industrial spaces. 


Woking Electrical Control Room is open to the public on the annual Heritage Open Days. Thanks to IanVisits for highlighting it! 

There are more of my photos on Flickr



Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Open House inspiration

Spoiled for choice by the 750 buildings welcoming visitors on Saturday and Sunday for Open House London? I'm not about to attempt a definitive guide or authoritative list of what to see, but here are some of the visits I enjoyed in previous years, loosely themed. All are open this year and don't require pre-booking: be inspired!

Livery halls


Ever wondered what goes on behind the - often rather impressive - closed doors of the City livery companies? Some I've visited with the wonderful London Historians will be opening.  Try the original home of copyright enforcerment, Stationers' Hall with its charming, 'hidden' garden (open Sunday); or Drapers' Hall, built on the site of Thomas Cromwell's mansion after his execution in the 1540s. It has been rebuilt since, after the Great Fire and more recently in 1772; the opulent interiors are largely Victorian - and lit by elaborate chandeliers. (Open Sunday.)


A late eighteenth century building in the City of London has its origins in sixteenth-century Deptford. It's not a livery hall, but Trinity House is responsible for our lighthouses, safety of shipping, and the welfare of seafarers. Not only is this a fine period interior, restored in the 1950s after suffering bomb damage during the Second World War, but it also contains plenty of sea-related details including model ships and lighthouses. (Open Saturday.)

Social history

If you'd prefer to learn about everyday lives, then Open House certainly isn't just about grand buildings.


See the work of Roman London's cowboy builders - and some rather good ones - at the intriguing Billingsgate House and Baths (open both days). Learn how the Romans bathed; ponder whether this was a wealthy villa or a mansio (inn).


Definitely not for the wealthy, London's almshouses offered homes for the needy (albeit with conditions to be met and plenty of rules attached). There are lovely examples of such 17th-century philanthropy at Trinity Hospital, Greenwich's riverside almshouses (open Saturday), or the restored and repurposed chapel of Lewisham's Merchant Taylors' Almshouses (open both afternoons).
By contrast, the social housing on Poplar's Lansbury Estate represents the ideals of post-war Britain. It was one of the attractions at the 1951 Festival of Britain, whose presence is still felt around the estate. Its focal point is the eccentric 'practical folly' of a clocktower in Chrisp Street Market (open both days).


Beyond housing, get close to the history of the Jewish East End in Sandys Row Synagogue - the oldest surviving Ashkenazi synagogue in London and still active today. (Open Sunday.) Potentially more macabre is the Old Mortuary in Rotherhithe - but thanks to its newer role as home to the venerable Time and Talents association, it's a surprisingly welcoming place in which to learn about the grim history of bodies in the Thames. (Open both days.)



Perhaps more cultural than social, but physically a near-neighbour to the Old Mortuary, is the magical Sands Films (although its building - a former granary - and the contents of its Rotherhithe Picture Research Library also justify its place here). Sands Films are a production company, film studio, and especially a costumiers for film, theatre, opera and ballet - exploring their amazing workshops and racks of extraordinary costumes is a very special experience. Highly recommended, and open both days.


Unexpected views

Hidden beneath a main road and behind locked gates, the stunning colours and patterns of the Crystal Palace Subway come as a wonderful surprise. This year, the fantastical foot tunnel doesn't require pre-booking, so you can relive the experience of arriving at the Crystal Palace through this marvelous bit of hidden Victoriana. (Open both days.)


Rather less lovely, the Seager Distillery Tower does however offer unbeatable views across Deptford and far beyond. Tours run on Saturday and Sunday.




The 'star'

Some buildings are consistently popular, and usually for good reason. Expect to queue if you want to visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office - but you'll forget your aching feet when you see its fantastic interior. Highlights are the Durbar Court and Locarno Suite, but there's eye-catching ornamentation everywhere. (Open Sunday.)






Saturday, 10 September 2016

Bovril Castle


Conveniently close to central London, with a village ambience and select developments, Dulwich appealed to many nineteenth-century industrialists. Some had famous names: Bessemer gave his to a steel process, Eno to fruit salts - made in New Cross. John Lawson Johnston is less obviously linked to his product - but his nickname became 'Mr Bovril'. 


Johnston was born in Scotland, studied chemistry, and became an apprentice butcher. He successfully took over and expanded his uncle's butchery business, before emigrating to Canada; in 1874, he won a large contract to supply the French army with preserved beef. He had been producing a beef glaze (concentrated stock in a long-lasting jelly) for years, but was now inspired to produce a semi-liquid version which he called Bovril


In 1884, Johnston sold his Canadian business and returned to Britain. His company moved between Old Street and Farringdon, and enjoyed such success that in 1892 he could buy the Georgian Kingswood House in Dulwich. 


However, as a wealthy Scot, he decided that what was really needed was a faux-baronial, stone-clad mansion - and set about spending £10,000 on creating it. (Although that's more like a million pounds in today's money, it was presumably spare change to Johnston who would sell Bovril for £2 million a few years later.) The transformed house was inevitably nicknamed 'Bovril Castle'. 


Eight years after he bought his 'Castle', Johnston died on his yacht in Cannes. The house has survived; since the 1950s, it has been owned by the Council and holds a library serving the housing estate built in its former grounds. Many of the other rooms are now used for functions and events. 


I visited with the Victorian Society. Kingswood House will be open on Sunday 18 September for Open House London.



Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Uncovered on Middlesex Street

Until recently, 56 Middlesex Street, E1 looked something like this (courtesy of Google Streetview. Covered in bright merchandise, its cheap and cheerful facade was fairly typical for a shop just off Petticoat Lane.


When I went by again a couple of weeks ago, it had changed significantly. The clothes shop is gone, work is being done, and a vintage sign has been exposed.



You can also spot another treat: a similarly vintage burglar alarm. It's Rely-a-Bell, but presumably no longer reliable.


However, the change in appearance isn't the only indication of the area's changing nature. Cross over to the shop door, and a sign shows that it is in fact a shop no longer. It is to reopen as offices.





Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Markfield Beam Engine

In a park in Tottenham is a fine piece of Victorian engineering and an important piece of London's sewerage history. Markfield Beam Engine may not be a 'cathedral of sewage', but could perhaps be considered a significant temple! After a long restoration process, it displays its full glory once more. 


Although far from the Thames, Tottenham shared the sewage problems of the central metropolis. This outlying town had grown rapidly in the mid-nineteenth century, and many homes' sewage discharged directly into its rivers, the Moselle and Lea. Thus the local board built the Markfield Road sewage works, which were run by a manure manufacturer. However, when the contractor died in 1858, the foul water ran into the Lea instead. In 1866, the resulting pollution was alleged to have killed nearly 4,000 people in a cholera outbreak by contaminating the Lea, a major source of East London's water


Improvements gradually followed, including appointment of a new contractor for the sewage plant, and the addition of the beam engine in 1886. From the end of the century, sewage went to Hackney's Northern High Level Sewer; Markfield Road was thus used only to deal with storm water  until its closure in 1964.


The 100-horsepower engine is massive: a 27-foot, cast-iron flywheel standing 17 feet above floor level and a 21-foot, wrought-iron beam operate two plunger pumps. These were each capable of moving two million gallons a day. In true Victorian style, the machinery is ornate, with eight fluted cast-iron columns and decorative acanthus leaves. The engine's base and cast-iron columns ensure that it is independent of the building it stands in, not relying upon the surrounding walls for support.


It was manufactured by Wood Brothers of Sowerby Bridge. This company had been founded in 1847 to engage in cotton-spinning and engineering; a few years later, the two activities were separated, with Richard Wood taking over the engineering work and his brother John the cotton-spinning. Markfield's is believed to be the last engine they produced. 


Massive and powerful as it was, the beam engine required plenty of resources to keep it running. Its coal consumption was four hundredweight per hour, and two driver/mechanics lived in tied cottages onsite. Its operation is no trivial matter, then, so we're especially fortunate to be able to see it in steam on the regular steam days. There are two left for this year, on 17 and 18 September (Open House weekend).

 





Friday, 19 August 2016

Ruins in the woods


An old water mill lies in ruins, almost hidden in woodland. It can only be reached by descending a slightly precarious, steeply downhill route from the footpath above. Trees and grasses grow through, around, and even over it, filtering the sunlight to a slightly eerie green. The nearby stream, no longer feeding the wheel, can be heard in the background.


This mill used to grind corn for the village of Hawarden, Flintshire; there is little information about it online, but it was built in 1767 for the landowner, Sir John Glynne. (His descendant Catherine Glynne would marry William Ewart Gladstone, so the land is now known as the Gladstone Estate.) It was later enlarged, rising to three storeys, and drove three pairs of stones; it apparently remained in use until the 1940s


Much of the machinery, including the waterwheel and grinding wheels, is still on site. The millpond is silted, and parts of the culvert which carried water to the wheel have rotted away.


The neighbouring chimney's purpose is unclear, but it seems to date from an unsuccessful attempt in the 1860s to convert the mill to steam power. 


While there is always an air of sadness to ruined buildings, the mill's abandonment also gives it a certain magic. There is something special about clambering around ruins which are being absorbed back into nature, their fixtures not neatly preserved but lying crookedly where they fall. 

 

 



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