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Exhibition at the Museum of London 23 July 2016 – 17 Apr 2017.

DSC04194cIt’s known of course as the Great Fire of London. So great in fact that more generally it is simply called the Great Fire. It raged for four days from 2 to 5 September 1666, destroying most of the Square Mile and a substantial area immediately west of the city wall. This being the disaster’s 350th anniversary, it is being commemorated with sundry events in many ways and places. Nobody is better equipped to deal with this than Museum of London with its vast collection of contemporary objects.

The overall design of the show is immersive and atmospheric, that is to say dark and quite noisy, but not intrusively so. This makes complete sense. The fire started at night and virtually all known paintings of it are nightscapes (at least three of which are on display). The first section is narrow and claustrophobic to give you the feel of the medieval London streedscape: it works.

Thereafter the the spaces open out to accommodate more object displays which take us chronologically through the before, during and after phases of the Fire.

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The technical stuff shows us just how pathetic was 17C fire-fighting equipment. Most risible of all were the squirts, a couple of which are on display. A beautifully-restored fire engine – also hopelessly inefficient – is one of the centrepieces of the exhibition.

The firesquirt. Just a large syringe.

The firesquirt. Just a large syringe.

17C fire engine. For effectiveness, it flatters to deceive!

17C fire engine. For effectiveness, it flatters to deceive!

A very large proportion of the objects feature the everyday – tiles, bricks, household objects. These quite obviously resonate the most and where the museum has a huge supply, not least via years of archaeology through MOLA and its predecessors.

Hoard of 17th-century glass found underneath burnt debris during excavations of a cellar on Gracechurch Street.

Hoard of 17th-century glass found underneath burnt debris during excavations of a cellar on Gracechurch Street.

There’s lots of interactivity that will prove popular with children (of all ages!). Microscopes to view in detail carbonised articles; pushbutton x-ray reveals of encrusted household objects such as locks, keys, knives; interactive computer game of saving buildings with a choice of methods – firehooks, gunpowder etc.

X-Ray of melted iron key found at Boltolph Lane. Museum id BPL95[119] This image may be used free of charge to promote and review the Museum of London Exhibition 'Fire Fire' 2016-17. All other uses must be cleared with the Museum of London picture library

X-Ray of melted iron key found at Boltolph Lane.

In addition, of course, there is no shortage of the paperwork: documents, diagrams, plans, panoramas, books. These could be an exhibition in their own right. And almost especially for me: old pub signs! Five of them!

The Monkey and Apple.

The Monkey and Apple.

The final phase of the exhibition shines a light on the aftermath and ramifications of the tragedy. For me and for many historians I suspect, this is the most absorbing part of the show because it reveals a clear break from many things medieval. It tells us of how Robert Hooke and his team along with voluntary Fire Judges decided who owned what;  how the leading thinkers of the day – Wren, Evelyn and others – came up with new plans for London (none was implemented: London had to get back into business asap); the birth of insurance; modern building regulations.

The Fire Judges' table.

The Fire Judges’ table.

Fire insurance. If you had cover, you'd attach the badge to the front of your building.

Fire insurance. If you had cover, you’d attach the badge to the front of your building.

One of Wren's drawings for the new St Paul's.

One of Wren’s drawings for the new St Paul’s.

Given the subject matter and the inventory at the museum’s disposal for a show such as this, the task would seem an embarrassment of riches for any curator. But in a way, this actually makes the task more challenging. Meriel Jeater and her team have surpassed that challenge to plan, design, assemble and deliver a wonderfully balanced and evocative exhibition of one of London’s greatest calamities. Do go.


Fire! Fire! runs at the Museum of London from tomorrow until 17 April 2017.
Tickets from £8 adults (when booked online).
More information and booking. 

Princelet Street

A guest post by LH Member Wendy Forrest. 

The Landmark Trust recently invited London Historians to 13 Princelet Street, Spitalfields. Just outside the bounds of the City, the area has long been home to those living on its fringe, servicing lifestyles from which they were themselves largely excluded. Spitalfields has sheltered Hugenots fleeing religious persecution, the Irish forced out by famine, Jews escaping pogroms and Bangladeshis remaking their lives after a genocidal war of independence.

The desperate living conditions of most 19th and 20th century residents left the Georgian dwellings in need of their own rescue. Militant conservationists and artistic gentrifiers turned Princelet Street and its neighbours from slum to swank. But the area is now threatened by a new and devastating wave of speculative development. Plans for Bishopsgate Goodsyard would create a looming wall of glass towers, some over 40 storeys high. British Land propose to bulldoze historic Norton Folgate retaining just a few Potemkin facades. Princelet Street would stand but its neighbourhood would be destroyed.

The history of No 13 Princelet Street is intimately tied to that of its neighbours and the street is full of stories that reflect the changing fortunes of Spitalfields. The invitation from Landmark Trust prompted a look at the way the street was developed and at the events that shaped some of the most extraordinary houses in the street. The visit felt especially timely as this area, the largest collection of early Georgian terraced houses in London, may soon be changed beyond any possible restoration.

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The first houses on Princelet Street were built just after 1700 on land used for market gardening after the priory and hospital of Street Mary Spital were dissolved in 1539. Leonard Gurle moved to the area in the 1640s to create a nursery for fruit trees, jasmine, honeysuckle and lilacs and was so successful that he was made the King’s Gardener in 1677. Spitalfields was still horticultural when construction began on Princelet Street. The plot was known as Joyce Garden, part of an estate bought by Charles Wood and Simon Michell after some shady dealing and at least one Chancery case. These two gentlemen of Lincolns Inn were also involved in the new business of sewage. They won the right to construct a local sewer system, along what is now Hanbury and Wilkes Street, ensuring they benefitted from all neighbourhood development.

Shortly after Wood and Michell acquired the land, Parliament resolved urgent action to counter the spread of non-conformist Protestantism. Fifty new Anglican churches, financed by coal taxes, were planned to serve the ‘godless thousands’ outside the City. Spitalfields, where a thriving Hugenot community now lived alongside established dissenters, was an obvious early site for one of these Queen Anne churches. Hawksmoor was appointed surveyor and designed six of the twelve actually built. The land for Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, Christ Church Spitalfields, was sold to the Church Commissioners by Wood and Michell and was linked to the sewer serving Princelet Street. As intended, Christ Church towered above the neighbouring Hugenot chapels, as it still dwarfs the synagogues and mosques which some of these chapels became.

Wood and Michell sold a couple of plots on Princelet Street outright but then decided to parcel out the land on leases of no longer than 99 years. Development fell to speculative builders including several carpenters, a stonemason, a painter, a bricklayer and a blacksmith. Samuel Worrall, carpenter, was chief amongst these and lived at No 18 himself using the back yard, which also had access from Fournier Street, as a timber yard. Worrall was a significant figure in Georgian Spitalfields: carpenter at Christ Church, churchwarden of the parish, overseer of the poor and a trustee of the almshouses in Crispin Street. A Samuel Worrall, probably his son, later rose to become Master of the Masons Company.

The stately Georgian townhouses of Princelet Street are sometimes seen as typical of the houses in which silkweavers lived and worked. Certainly many were built or adapted for silk production with wide windowed lofts designed to illuminate the looms within. Spitalfields was the centre of the industry and by 1832 a parliamentary report noted 50,000 people in the weaver’s district of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green – half the population – entirely dependent on silk manufacture. But the houses of Princelet Street are hardly the average weavers’ lodgings. Most silk workers were poor and, as the industry declined in competition with foreign silks and Indian calicos, many desperately so.

George Godwin (London Shadows 1854) weaving as misery.

George Godwin (London Shadows 1854) weaving as misery.

The master weavers who lived in Princelet Street often put work out to as many as 200 journeymen and apprentices. Its likely that some of these houses would have been targeted during the periodic weavers riots, most intense during the 1760s, when silks were slashed on the loom by ‘cutters’ protesting poor rates of pay. Other early Princelet occupants included a weaver, a glover, a brewer, a cutler, a doctor, carpenters and clergymen who would also have been amongst the wealthiest in their respective trades. The local dominance of the textile industry is confirmed by the presence of weavers, a tailor, a needlemaker, a dyer, a knitter and silk brokers.

No 13 was built by a stone mason, Edward Buckingham and his first tenant was probably a tailor. Several early occupants had Hugenot names and local trade directories list silk merchants at this address. But by the second half of the 19th century Spitalfields silk was in decline and new trades arrived at No 13. By 1861 these included a poulterer and a mangler or washerwoman suggesting a dip in the fortunes of the tenants. The house was now multi-occupied, shared between four families by 1871. There were also new names: Guttenberg, a jeweller, and Levy, a boot ‘clicker’ who cut out leather for shoe uppers. By the time Peter Lerwill bought the house in 1984 decades of poverty and overcrowding had taken their toll. He took on a slum but one that retained its original plan, partitions and panelling. Lerwill left the restored house to the Landmark Trust in 2004.

13 Princelet Street.

13 Princelet Street

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No 19 was built by Samuel Worrall in 1719 and the first occupants were a silk weaving Hugenot family, the Ogiers, who were followed by a number of poorer weaving families and their looms. Later it became home to Polish and Irish immigrants and in the 1860s a synagogue was built into a garden extension. Israel Zangwill tells us ‘Its furniture was bare benches, a raised platform with a reading desk at the centre, and a wooden curtained ark at the end…The worshippers dropped in, mostly in their workaday garments and grime, and rumbled and roared and chorused the prayers with zeal which shook the windowpanes’. A secret room below the synagogue hosted anti-fascist meetings in the 1930s including preparations for the battle of Cable Street. Children from the Kindertransport found a first sanctuary there in the 1940s. In 1980 the attic was unlocked to reveal cabbalic writings and scattered texts in fifteen different languages, traces of the erudite caretaker who had disappeared suddenly and without trace over ten years earlier. This house is now the Museum of Immigration.

Number 19.

Number 19.

No 2, a three storey house with roof loft on the corner of Wilkes Street, was one of the last to be built by Samuel Worrall. Initially tenanted by a glover, it was soon home to Anna Maria Garthwaithe, one of the most celebrated designers of the 18th century. She lived in Princelet Street for 35 years creating flowered patterns for silk damasks and brocades, nearly a thousand of which are still held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. Anna Maria was a Lincolnshire vicar’s daughter and it was only when her father died that she was able to establish an independent life living with her widowed sister. At the age of 40, she came to Spitalfields to work directly with the highly skilled weavers who bought her designs. The house was later tenanted by the Goldsteins, the Venicoffs, the Marks, the Hellers and then by a number of Bengali families before it was restored in 1985.

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Number 2.

No 4 is a handsome double fronted house taken in 1724 by Benjamin Truman, third generation brewer responsible for a major expansion of the family firm. The Truman Brewery on Brick Lane was a major employer well into the 20th century and is still a local landmark. Ben Truman supplied beer to the Prince of Wales and was knighted by George III when he took the throne in 1760. Truman was painted by both Gainsborough and Romney and his portrait graced beer labels well into the 1970s. By the mid 18th century No 4 was also occupied by Hugenot weavers who added the characteristic loft. Today it trades on its history and is hired out as a location for photographs and films. The house can be seen in the scene where Sharon Stone ties Hugh Dancy to the bed in Basic Instinct 2 or where Rupert Pendry-Jones finds the victim of a Ripper copycat killing in a 2009 episode of Whitechapel.

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Number 4.

No 6 became London’s first Jewish theatre in 1886. Public funds were raised by a local butcher and Sir Samuel Montagu, Liberal MP for Whitechapel. This enabled Abraham Goldfaden, an actor-manager from Riga, to set up the Hebrew Dramatic Club. Jacob Adler, an actor who rose to great fame in New York, performed there after fleeing Odessa. A character in Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto claims the Jargon or Yiddish theatre is ‘the only real theatre in London’. In 1887, during a production of The Gypsy Girl, the firm alarm was raised in error and 17 people were killed in the rush to the exits. The theatre closed shortly after. It is not the street’s only link to the arts. Lionel Tertis, international viola player and professor at the Royal Academy of Music, lived at No 8, his father was the reader and circumciser at the synagogue at No 19.

As the Jews moved on, the Bengali community tenanted the Spitalfields slums. From the early 19th century Syleti men had travelled to Calcutta and found work crewing British ships, often in the sweltering boiler rooms. Some were marooned in London, some jumped ship. Their new London homes were close to the docks and a 1964 survey showed that the highest concentrations of Pakistanis in East London (Bangladesh was still East Pakistan) were in Princelet Street and old Montague Street. The 1971 Bangladesh genocide and War of Independence led to another great refugee influx and by 1971 there were 200 Bengalis occupying just sixteen addresses in Princelet Street. Living conditions were Victorian and Spitalfields was one of the most deprived and overcrowded wards in the country. The campaign for decent housing was led by the community itself through organisations like the Spitalfields Housing Co-operative which took over and improved twenty houses in Princelet Street in the 1970s and manages more than 600 local properties today.

Demolition and redevelopment threatened the whole area in the 1970s and the militant campaign to protect and restore Spitalfields was hard fought. No 13 Princelet Street is a wonderful example of what was saved. On 17 and 18 September The Landmark Trust are holding an Open Day and London Historians are warmly invited to attend. To find out more about developments in Spitalfields:

www.landmarktrust.org.uk for holiday lets and open day news
www.morelightmorepower.co.uk for the campaign for Bishopsgate Goodsyard
www.thespitalfieldstrust.com for plans for Norton Folgate
www.19princeletstreet.org.uk for visiting No 19 and the Museum of Immigration
www.princelet.co.uk interior details at 4 Princelet St for filmmakers and the curious
www.bishopsgate.org.uk for local history learning and research


More images of Princelet Street on our Flickr space.

Boswell’s Prank

Quite recently I read Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson, A Biography (2008). There was a lovely episode involving a convoluted prank which James Boswell conspired to play on his friend. It featured the firebrand John Wilkes (1725 – 1797), one of my all-time favourite Londoners. As an establishment Tory, Johnson (1709 – 1784) had a poor opinion of the radical Wilkes, whom he had never met; he felt Wilkes to be no more than “a criminal from a gaol”. Equally dismissive, Wilkes viewed the lexicographer as “a slave of the state.” Boswell thought it would be a rum caper to engineer a situation whereby the two men unavoidably bumped into each other socially – a challenge, given their different circles.

Wilkes by Hogarth. Johnson by Reynolds.

Wilkes by Hogarth. Johnson by Reynolds.

He set the trap with the help of a mutual friend of all the parties, Charles Dilly. Dilly was a publisher who liked to entertain at his home in the Poultry, which had become something of an informal literary hub. Both men were invited to dinner on the evening of 15 May 1776 without the other’s knowledge.

On the evening itself, on discovering Wilkes was in the room, Johnson sulkily sat down with a book. But Wilkes – as charming as Johnson was grumpy – sat next to the older man and made a big fuss over him. Johnson’s resistance evaporated almost immediately and the two great men spent the evening in sparkling and warm conversation.

Boswell didn’t mind a bit that sparks didn’t fly. It was just a mischievous experiment and he was no doubt pleased that for once his friend failed to dominate the room.

End of Mission

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Firepower, the museum of artillery in Woolwich, closes its doors today for the last time. This is a tragedy. As a former gunner myself I am possibly biased, but in my opinion it was the best military museum in London with brilliant staff, brilliant volunteers and an outreach programme second-to-none.

The museum’s archive has already been shipped out, leaving military history researchers in the lurch. Now the guns, ammunition, displays, ordnance equipment, medals collection (including 22 VCs from the 62 awarded to gunners) will be crated up, transported and stored at the Royal Artillery HQ in Larkhill, to be seen again when – who knows?

I realise that there were – and are – challenging problems, mainly financial, relating to the museum, but I believe a better way forward could have been sought and found. Surely. The Regiment appears to have taken the easy way out and another strand of the thread connecting Woolwich with gunners has been severed. A “gunners gallery” is to be opened at the Greenwich Heritage Centre later this year apparently. Big deal.

I understand from speaking to various people that the ultimate decision to close the museum came from the Master Gunner, General Granville-Chapman.

Anyway, there you go. More heritage denied. I’ll pop into the museum for one last look today. I’d like to thanks all the staff and volunteers at Firepower for their enthusiasm and hospitality they’ve extended every time I’ve visited, an experience shared by many thousands down the years. Good luck with all future endeavours. Ubique!

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sheridanTwo hundred years ago today, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751 – 1816)- a titan of the London theatre – died in  poverty at home in Saville Row.

Things didn’t go well for him after his Theatre Royal Drury Lane burned down in 1809 and he lost his seat in Parliament in 1812 after 32 years an MP.

Sheridan it was who gave us the malapropism after Mrs Malaprop from The Rivals (1775), one of the great comic characters of English drama.

This great man was born in Dublin in 1751. His parents moved to London when he was young and sent him to Harrow school and then further education privately. He spent time at Middle Temple but hankered for a career in the theatre in which there was a strong family background. This was the London of David Garrick and Samuel Foote – it was a very exciting time for the stage.

Success came quite quickly with The Rivals – initially badly received but transformed spectacularly and almost instantaneously with a rewrite and a new cast. Sheridan epitomised the can-do attitude of the Georgian period. There followed School for Scandal in 1777. Aged 26, the playwright had produced two of the great plays of the English canon. Many other productions followed.

Between 1778 and 1780, Sheridan bought by instalments the Theatre Royal Drury Lane from Garrick. Then as now, it was the greatest of all London theatres. The building was thought to have been designed by Wren (we now know it wasn’t, the architect remains unknown), but the reputation of London’s great architect paled besides Sheridan’s ambition and vision. He tore it down and built an even bigger building in 1794 with all the latest fire safety features (actually laid down by recent law). This was the one which burned down in 1809, leaving Sheridan in the street – glass in hand – to remark laconically: “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.”

Sheridan’s other great interest was politics. As with the theatre, he engaged in it with no half-measures, taking his seat at Westminster in 1780. Already a famous man about town, he was soon at the heart of the Foxite Whigs, the circle of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and the Prince of Wales himself. With Fox, Burke and others, he vigorously sought the prosecution and impeachment of Warren Hastings, formerly governor-general of Bengal. In pursuit of this, he stood up in court and spoke for several days, finally collapsing theatrically back into his seat, uttering: “My Lords, I am done!”. And so was Hastings. It was a trial which took 148 days over seven years. Chilcot is by no means new.

Sheridan’s fame coincided with Reynolds, Gainsborough, Lawrence et al, so it’s perhaps surprising that there are relatively few likenesses of him. His face was markedly disfigured from the second of two duels he had in 1772 aged just 21. They were against a thuggish army captain, one Captain Mathews. It all resulted from Sheridan rescuing and eloping to France with a 17 year old girl whom the married Mathews had been pestering. Brave and physically courageous. Yet another reason to love Sheridan. He went on to marry Eliza Linley. They were both spectacularly unfaithful to each other, but stuck together.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Brave, quixotic, talented, ambitious. A great man and a great Londoner, who typified a great age. He is buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey and today we remember him.


Good coverage on Wikipedia and an even better entry if you can access by subscription the Dictionary of National Biography.

On this day in 1886, Queen Victoria opened Royal Holloway College, a women-only institute of learning which was bankrolled by the pills and powders magnate, Thomas Holloway. Holloway and  his wife Jane lacked children. The entrepreneur was thinking about his legacy and it was Mrs Holloway who came up with the idea.

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Royal Holloway eventually merged with another London women’s college, Bedford, becoming Royal Holloway and Bedford New College. A right mouthful, it is now more commonly known as Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL). Slightly better.

The reason I’m making a bit of a fuss is that Royal Holloway is my alma mater. Pray indulge me. I had been turned down by King’s and UCL chiefly on account of my awful A Level grades. Fair enough. RHBNC (as was) took me under their wing. I must thank those other London-based colleges for their chilly shoulder, because the teaching staff at Royal Holloway at that time included the likes of Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, Professor Amanda Vickery, Professor Caroline Barron, Professor Nigel Saul, Professor Alison Brown, Professor Boris Rankov, Professor Julian Crysostomides, Professor Rosalind Thomas, Professor Jonathan Phillips, Professor Justin Champion. (names in bold were my tutors). Not all were professors at the time, I should just say. I’m sure you must recognise some of those great names.

So I was, and am, a very lucky historian. I am showing off, I admit, but I’m very proud of Royal Holloway’s History faculty.

Right now, thousands of young people are pondering which uni to sign up to. If you – or your son or daughter – are planning to do History, Royal Holloway is well worth a look.

Happy 130th birthday, Royal Holloway, and thanks.

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Last Saturday London Historians went on an awayday to St Albans; 12 of us. We were led by fellow Member and guide, Rob Smith, a longstanding resident of the city who gave us a wonderful tour.

I was aware, of course, of the ancient Roman town very near by, Verulamium. And that it has a fine old abbey, now a cathedral. But I was unprepared for quite how much of this city’s historic fabric survives. You can walk entire streets where the newest building might be Victorian. I was particularly pleased to see lots of old coaching inns which today shops, pubs, flats, whatever. But still there. St Albans escaped WW2 bombing but importantly it’s less careless about its heritage than London: I gather the St Albans Civic Society has a fearsome reputation.

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The cathedral itself, like many large and ancient survivals, is a hodge-podge of styles, and none the worse for that. At the beginning of its timeline, still an abbey, we have its beautiful Norman tower. At the other end we have the much-derided west front by Victorian architect Edmund Beckett Denison who took over the building’s restoration from Sir George Gilbert Scott. It looks okay to me but will never compare with – for example – Hawksmoor’s west front towers at Westminster Abbey.

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Inside is the shrine and tomb of St Alban himself, a local man who during the Roman persecution, took the rap for a Christian priest, and was beheaded. Like today, pilgrimage was massive business in the Middle Ages, only more so. When the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett turned Canterbury into a serious rival destination, St Albans successfully petitioned Rome for Alban’s beneficiary, Amphibalus, also to be sanctified.  Two saints!

Shrine of St Alban.

Shrine of St Alban.

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Shrine of Amphibalus. Some TLC needed, though.

In addition to these two blameless fellows, notable St Albans residents included Matthew Paris, who was a monk at the abbey, and a medieval chronicler; Francis Bacon, the scientist and philosopher who developed the Scientific Method. Queen Anne’s friend Sarah Churchill, who preferred St Albans to Blenheim; and Samuel Ryder, a seed magnate originally from Preston, who sponsored the first Ryder Cup.

The Wars of the Roses. Did you know they kicked of at St Albans? In May 1455, the armies of the Dukes of York and Somerset fought it out in the streets, alleys, ditches and the market square. The issue was that the King, Henry VI, was mentally ill, so who ruled England in his stead? York prevailed on this occasion, but not before St Albans, which had no investment in the quarrel whatsoever, got horribly sacked.

St Albans is but two stops on the train from St Pancras and therefore – for me – takes no more time than to reach fair Greenwich, which I visit quite frequently. You may find the same. No excuses. Rob has another scheduled tour coming up on 9 July.

Rob tells us about the ancient Great Gate to the Monastery.

Rob tells us about the ancient Great Gate to the Monastery.

View from St Albans's town Clock Tower in the market square.

View from St Albans’s town Clock Tower in the market square.

Clock Tower bell, known as Archangel Gabriel, case in Whitechapel c1400!

Clock Tower bell, known as Archangel Gabriel, cast in Whitechapel c1400!

Roman mosaic, in situ.

Roman mosaic, in situ.

I’ve put more pictures on our Flickr space here.

Finally, in view of my previous post, on the pipe organ, here is St Albans Cathedral’s tribute to David Bowie.

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