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A guest post by LH Member Brian Cookson. This article was first published in LH Members’ Newsletter of August 2014.


By the early nineteenth century, with the increase in population in west London and improvements in transport from the centre, people who wanted to cross the river from Hammersmith to the Surrey side by road had to make a five mile detour either via Kew or Putney Bridge.

After the usual abortive attempts to construct a river crossing, a group of local people formed the Hammersmith Bridge Company and raised £80,000 with a view to presenting a Bill before Parliament. Despite strong opposition from the proprietors of Kew and Putney Bridges, the Act enabling the building of Hammersmith Bridge, which was to be the first suspension bridge over the River Thames, finally received Royal Assent on 9 June 1824.

The engineer chosen to design Hammersmith Bridge was William Tierney Clark who was the engineer of the nearby West Middlesex waterworks. Clark’s proposed design of a suspension bridge at Hammersmith was attractive as it required the construction of only two river piers and provided a 400 ft. wide navigation path for shipping.

Tierney Clark’s magnum opus was undoubtedly the famous chain bridge over the Danube at Budapest. The bridge was completed in 1849 and survived until its destruction by the retreating German army in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. After the end of the war the bridge was rebuilt according to Tierney Clark’s original design and stands today as a foreign monument to the great engineer.

The choice of a suspension bridge was a daring decision to take, since no successful large-scale suspension bridge had ever been built except for the pioneering Union Bridge over the River Tweed near Berwick, constructed in 1820 by Captain Samuel Brown (1776-1852). Brown supplied the ironwork for Hammersmith Bridge, but it was Tierney Clark who designed it with two massive stone river towers which supported the suspension chains and formed a Tuscan archway through which the road platform ran. Since Thomas Telford (1757-1834) was in the process of constructing a similar suspension bridge over the Menai Straits between Wales and Anglesey at this time, Clark submitted his plan for Telford’s comments. There was considerable mutual respect as well as rivalry between the great engineers of the nineteenth century and so it was not surprising when they asked each other’s advice.

Telford’s Menai Bridge was completed in 1826, one year earlier than Hammersmith Bridge. The Menai Bridge has a central span between the supporting towers of 579 ft. However, the road between the towers and the shore is supported on masonry arches. At Hammersmith the central span between the river towers is 400 ft, but the suspension chains also support the road platforms between the river towers and the river bank. This gives a total length of 688 ft. and allows the claim that Clark’s Hammersmith Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time it was built.

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Tierney Clark’s Hammersmith Bridge of 1827.

From a practical point of view, the bridge had significant shortcomings. The width of the carriageway was 20 ft. and there were two footpaths of 5 ft. on either side. This was not unreasonable for the traffic conditions at the time, except that where the road went under the thick stone arches its width was reduced to only 14 ft. and at this point it had to provide for both vehicles and pedestrians. Traffic was about to increase substantially not least because of the existence of the bridge itself. It could even be said that the bridge put Hammersmith on the map rather than vice versa.

With the creation of the Metropolitan Water Board in 1855, pressure grew to free all the bridges in its area of toll charges, especially since the upstream bridges from Kew to Staines had already been freed . In 1877 the Metropolis Toll Bridges Act was passed to allow for the MBW to purchase the bridges and abolish the tolls. Hammersmith, Putney and Wandsworth Bridges were all declared toll free on the same day, 26 June 1880.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the MBW which now owned the bridge, was concerned about its safety. He produced a report recommending the complete reconstruction of the bridge superstructure on top of the existing pier foundations, and in 1883 an enabling Act was passed.

The new Hammersmith Bridge, like the old, was designed on the suspension principle but has a much more fanciful appearance than its predecessor. Structurally there are major differences in the use of material. The suspension chains are of steel rather than wrought iron. The river towers, instead of being built of stone, have frames of wrought iron which are clad in ornamental cast iron. Since iron is lighter than the equivalent strength masonry, the towers take up less space and allow a wider opening for river traffic through the arches. As a result, the carriageway under the arches is now 21 ft. wide, instead of 14 ft., and there is room for two 6 ft. footways which are cantilevered and curl round the outside of the towers rather than sharing the carriageway with the road as with the old bridge. On the river banks, instead of the toll gates which had been located there when the old bridge was built, Bazalgette constructed highly decorative abutments which take the suspension chains underground to a depth of 40 ft. where they are firmly anchored.

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The current bridge, by Sir Joseph Bazalgette.

Unfortunately, the bridge has suffered from problems of wear and tear, and has had to be closed a number of times. Natural deterioration has not been the only danger to which Hammersmith Bridge has been exposed . The IRA has tried to blow it up on no less than three occasions, but with limited success. Not everyone has agreed with the aesthetic merits of this bridge. William Morris, who owned a riverside house in Hammersmith, called it simply ‘this ugly suspension bridge’. However today it stands as a monument to Victorian engineering and design, beloved by the public, and seen by millions as the Oxford and Cambridge boat race crews strain for victory as they pass underneath every year.

See also.


Brian Cookson is the author of Crossing the River: The History of London’s Thames River Bridges from Richmond to the Tower and London’s Waterside Walks. He is also a Blue Badge Guide who offers various fascinating guided walks of London.
Find out more on his web page: www.lonwalk.ndirect.co.uk/.

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Sopwith Camel, Hawker Hurricane, Hawker Hunter, Sea Harrier.

As a small contribution to #RAF100, I’d like to remember in particular a man who – while never in the RAF himself – did build tens of thousands of their warplanes. Boy, did he build them. That man was Sir Thomas Sopwith (1888 – 1989). Remembered mainly for the aeroplane that bore his name – the Camel – Sopwith also gave us many other famous fighter planes, including the Hurricane, the Hawker Hunter and, believe it or not, he was also involved in the Sea Harrier, some 60 years after World War One. In other words, he was building aircraft from barely ten years after the Wright brothers up to a model which is still in use by the US Marines today, over a century of in-service fighter planes. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that Sopwith himself lived to be 101.

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Thomas Sopwith c1911

Thomas Sopwith, a Londoner, was born in Kensington in 1888. Although his father died in a shooting accident when Sopwith was a boy, he left the family well-off. In his twenties, young Tom enthusiastically embraced the pursuits of adventurers of his standing: ballooning, motor racing, ocean yachting and flying. He was the 31st British pilot to gain his licence. He was also fiercely competitive, competing in and winning speed and endurance competitions. By 1914 he was building aircraft from a small factory in Kingston in addition to running his flying school since 1912. By the end of the war the Sopwith Aviation Company had manufactured 18,000 warplanes in dozens of variants, but most famously the Camel, nemesis of Baron von Richthofen.

He subsequently in the early 1920s started a new company with his Australian collaborator and test pilot, the appropriately named Harry Hawker. Unfortunately Hawker died soon afterwards in a flying accident but Sopwith took the company forward from its HQ at Brooklands, designing the Hurricane unprompted and before the government realised the looming need for such a fighter. Until 1963, under Sopwith’s leadership, 26,800 aircraft of fifty-two different types flowed from the production lines of Hawkers and its associated companies.

Sopwith remained on the board of the Hawker Siddeley Group until 1988. Knighted in 1953, Sir Thomas Sopwith’s biggest regret was failing to win the America’s Cup in 1934. What a life!


Thomas Sopwith on Wikipedia.
Thomas Sopwith Documentary (1984) on YouTube (30 mins: marvellous!).

A guest post by LH Member Prof. Sheila Cavanagh.

Miranda Kaufmann. Black Tudors: The Untold Story (OneWorld Publications 2017)
Stephen Alford. London’s Triumph: Merchant Adventurers and the Tudor City (Penguin 2018)
Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson. A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material Culture and Domestic Life, 1500-1700 (Yale, 2017).

Although most but not all London Historians are interested in the early modern period, the three books described here contain information that will be valuable for all historians.  They are all rich resources that cater to historians of many persuasions, academic and not.  At least one author, Miranda Kaufmann, is a London Historians member herself. In fact her book is offered as this month’s London Historians book prize. Stephen Alford speaks at length about Sir Thomas Gresham, whose London College is the site of the LH annual lecture.  Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson are regular (and highly recommended) speakers in the area. I was privileged recently to spend a day with them at the Weald and Downland Living Museum (http://www.wealddown.co.uk/) where they presented a wealth of information about early modern wills and inventories.  Each of these writers works on topics of significant interest to the London Historians and I encourage our members to keep an eye out for their works and for their public presentations.

book black tudorsMiranda Kaufmann undertakes a detailed study of the presence of Africans in early modern England, a population that many people have believed were absent.  Drawing from a range of documentary sources (many found in London), she provides a series of biographies that range far more broadly across London society than one might anticipate. There were a number of African musicians, for instance, who received considerable acclaim (and wages) for their work.  Somewhat surprisingly, Africans were often prized for their skills at swimming, since Englishmen were less likely to be able to swim.  This section is rather poignant, since Kaufmann notes that one reason English sailors could not swim was the desire for them to drown quickly if they fell overboard, since no one was going to attempt to save them.  She also talks about entrepreneurial Africans and dispels the assumption that all African women in England would have been prostitutes, although she does discuss the sexual abuse and enslavement of Africans.  The author has been speaking regularly since this book appeared, for good reason. She offers an articulate and illuminating account of a group many people did not know inhabited England during this time.  London Historians should be pleased to have such an informative book offered by one of its members.

alfordStephen Alford’s book is also very interesting and well-written.  It offers much to appeal to London Historians since, in addition to the focus on Thomas Gresham, he spends considerable time discussing the development and importance of the Livery system within the City of London.  Members who have been visiting the Livery Halls with our group will find much to recognize here as Alford describes the ways that the Livery contributed to individual and communal lives during this period.  Like the other authors in this review, he provides considerable evidence from wills and inventories, which helps make this volume useful even for those working outside this historical period.  Similarly, his account of London’s rapid growth during this era, despite the devastation caused by illness introduces pertinent information about immigration and international trade that could be valuable for those interested in a variety of topics.  This is a fascinating book that offers a great deal of historical research in a readable format.

dayathomeinearlymodernengland.Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson also keep their readers firmly in mind as they present a wonderfully well-illustrated account of daily life in the early modern period.  Like their workshop, the book discusses topics both large and small and encourages you to think about early modern England with a new attention to detail.  Ear cups (for cleaning said orifices) and toothpicks, for example, were often intricately carved, but rarely listed in inventories or wills.  Kaufmann, notably, makes a related point when she indicates that animals were often named on farms, but those names only occasionally were listed in wills.  This book about daily life brings a number of such ordinary items and tasks into focus and helps modern audiences better understand what the daily lives of these people looked and felt like.  The documents they use for this study would be helpful in a number of inquiries and they do an excellent job of setting out the strengths and weaknesses of using different kinds of evidence for a range of investigations.

These three books all offer excellent bibliographies and lists of sources, so would be valuable for those sections alone. They each provide new perspectives on London during this time frame and complement each other well.  None of them treads on the others’ territory, but they each tell fascinating stories that intersect with things that many LH members appreciate.

As a great admirer of Wyndham Lewis’s art, I was delighted to see his portrait of TS Eliot at the Royal Academy of Arts, on loan all the way from Durban, South Africa.

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It is part of the 250th anniversary of the Academy’s Summer Exhibition, a retrospective being held concurrently with this year’s show: The Great Spectacle.

This painting caused great controversy when the Academy rejected it for the 1938 Summer Exhibition. Many of Lewis’s peers were incensed, including Augustus John, who resigned his membership of the R.A. over the issue. His resignation letter is also on display.
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Eliot liked the portrait, but a possible reason the work was rejected was that both artist and sitter had a somewhat jaundiced view of the Academy. There are some choice quotes here.

I’ve only mentioned Wyndham Lewis once before on this blog and then only in passing in a piece about David Bowie’s personal collection. Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957) was a Canadian-born artist and intellectual, active in the first half of the 20th Century. He served with distinction in WW1 as an artillery officer. Before the conflict he had been a member of the Camden Town Group and was active in the Vorticist movement (who expounded a sort of hybrid of Cubist and Futurist styles), being a contributor to its magazine, BLAST. Lewis was a combative critic of the intellectual Left in the 20s and 30s. In the early 1930s, like many at the time, he became admirer of Hitler, a position which had completely reversed by 1936. For the last years of his life from the early 1950s he was completely blind.

But back to the show. The Great Spectacle is indeed great and an most certainly an excellent spectacle. In the spirit of the Wyndam Lewis controversy, there is an amusing picture by Alfred Munnings (1878 – 1959, surely the best painter of horses ever) which takes the piss out of admirers of modern art.

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The inclusion of this picture is significant in that Munnings, as outgoing President of the Academy, in 1949 famously made a drunken speech attacking modern art and its practitioners. Fortunately for us, it was recorded, but the Academy must have been rightly horrified.

So two of our best painters of the 20th Century attacking the Academy from opposite directions. They couldn’t win, really. But all credit to them for showing us their story, warts and all, through this superbly curated show, necessarily chronological, but paying close attention to genre. All the British greats are there, famous and obscure, men and women: some of your favourites are bound to be there.


The Summer Exhibition 2018 itself is a joy. I hadn’t been for over 25 years, but from my dim recollection of the previous occasion compared with 2018, I’m sure that this year’s show is superior in every way. Brighter, more variety, more imagination, talent. Many pieces are political, many quirky, lots are funny and indeed, some are all three. I particularly enjoyed the humorous homages of Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl, but there is so much more to savour.

A big anniversary year for the Royal Academy, and they’ve played a blinder.

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A guest post by London Historians member, Martyn Cornell, first published in our members’ newsletter from July 2014.

It is doubtful that many of the hipsters drinking their craft-brewed, hoppy IPAs in rough-walled, high-ceilinged pubs in Hoxton and Hackney realise that the beers they are sipping have their historical roots not very far away, and that the very first beers to be called IPAs – India Pale Ales – were made by East London brewers.

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Abbott’s Pale Ale, circa 1850.

Pale ale as a style of drink seems to have originated as a country speciality, popular among the gentry, and according to one 18th century writer it only came to London in the reign of Queen Anne, when those same gentry began spending more time in the capital, bringing their tastes with them. The popular drink in the capital was and remained a type of well-hopped dark brown beer that would eventually develop into the style known as porter, because of its popularity with the street and river porters of London. However, some London brewers began brewing pale ales as well, and not just for the home market: there is evidence that the Fountain brewery by the Hermitage in Wapping was exporting pale ale (and stout) to the West Indies from early in the 18th century.

One point of difference between the export pale ales and those sold at home was that, in order to survive the journey overseas, the export ales had to be more heavily hopped – one third more hops was “absolutely necessary” for beer sent into a warmer climate, according to one writer in 1768 – and heavier hopping is what links those 18th century ales sent out on sailing ships to hotter climes and the sorts drunk today in craft beer bars.

Ale and beer were being exported to the East Indies as well by at least 1711, carried there in the ships of the East India Company, which had a monopoly on trade between India and Britain. The company allowed its commanders and crew to carry all sorts of goods out east to sell to Europeans settled in places such as Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, including furniture, china and, clothes, foodstuffs, wine and cider, as well as beer. A ship’s commander could make up to £12,000 a year from private business, and by 1784 it had become the usual (though illegal) practice for an East Indiaman captain to sell his command to his successor for between 4,000 and 7,000 guineas.

The East Indiamen, as the ships were called, loaded up at Blackwall, just down-river from the Isle of Dogs. Generally, it seems, and certainly by the end of the 18th century, the commanders and captains did not travel very far to buy their beer, getting it from the brewery founded in 1752 at Bow, just up the Lea, by George Hodgson. It seems it was not just Hodgson’s nearness that attracted the officers of the East Indiamen, and the way that his beers could be easily shipped down the Lea by barge, but also that he gave them lengthy credit of up to 18 months: since a round trip to India could not be done in much less than 10 months, this was very handy.

Hodgson is sometimes said to have discovered the need to heavily hop ale that was being shipped out east, but there is no evidence for this at all, and nor is there any evidence that his was the first pale ale shipped to India: he was just doing what every brewer knew needed to be done to export ale. But while other London brewers also exported beer to India, his became the best known. Although Hodgson sold porter as well as pale ale to the East Indiaman commanders, it was for pale ale that the Bow brewery became most famous, perhaps because only the soldiers and servants drank porter in India, while the officers and gentlemen drank pale ale. It even had a song written about it, “sung at many a pigstick party and race meeting in the thirties, forties and fifties”:

Who has not tasted of Hodgson’s pale beer
With its flavour the finest that hops ever gave?
It drives away sadness, it banishes fear,
And imparts a glad feeling of joy to the grave.

O! to drink it at morning, when just from our bed
We rise unrefreshed, and to breakfast sit down,
The froth-crested brimmer we raise to our head,
And in swigging off Hodgson, our sorrows we drown.

By 1813 the Bow brewery was selling 4,000 barrels of beer for export to the east. Four years later the brewery was rebuilt by Bow Bridge, 230 yards east of its original site, and where a pub called the Bombay Grab had been running since at least 1805. (The name of this now-closed pub almost certainly comes from an East India Company warship, the Bombay Grab, a three-masted armed cruiser of the Bombay Marine active in the 1780s, of which an oil painting exists in the British Museum. A “grab” was a two-masted Eastern coasting-vessel or galley, from the Arabic gurab.) The brewery was rebuilt again in 1821, at which point its owners, Frederick Hodgson and Thomas Drane, decided that they were now going to cut out the East Indiamen’s officers and ship their beer to India themselves, thus taking all the profits from the operation.

 

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The Bow Brewery, circa 1928.

Unfortunately for them, the East India Company was so angered at this attempt to reduce the income of its ships’ commanders that it invited the brewers of Burton upon Trent to turn to the India pale ale trade. Within a few years Burton brewers such as Bass and Allsopp had captured the majority of pale ale sales in India.

Curiously, all this time the name “India Pale Ale” had still not come into use. Instead it was called “Pale Ale brewed expressly for the India market”, “Pale Ale as prepared for India” and similar circumlocutions. The first known use of the term “India Pale Ale” (or to be exact, “East India Pale Ale”) comes from a newspaper in Sydney, Australia in 1829, when it appears to be referring to a beer brewed by Taylor Walker’s brewery in Limehouse. The first known use of the term India Pale Ale in Britain does not occur for another six years, in an advertisement in the Liverpool Mercury newspaper published in 1835, though this time it was for Hodgson’s “very superior” East India Pale Ale, the London brewer evidently trying to get at least some of the Liverpool shipping trade otherwise easily supplied from Burton.

The trade for India Pale Ale at home, meanwhile, appears to still have been pretty limited. But in 1839 the railway arrived in Burton upon Trent, and within a couple of years the Burton brewers began shipping increasing quantities of their IPAs around Britain by rail – in particular to London, where IPA soon became popular with the middle classes. (One visible sign of this trade can still be seen down the east side of St Pancras Station, opposite King’s Cross Station, where the attractive arch-windowed frontage was once the stores for the Burton brewer Thomas Salt, with room for 20,000 barrels.)

London’s pre-eminence as the original home of India Pale Ale had now fallen away, helped by the fact that, unfortunately, Burton well-water, saturated with gypsum, or calcium sulphate, made a much better sparkling pale ale than London water, which is better suited to dark beers. Indeed, several big London brewers, including Charrington’s of Mile End and Truman Hanbury and Buxton of Brick Lane, had opened branch breweries in Burton to supply their pubs with pale ales, which is why many old Truman’s pubs still say on their stone frontages things like “London Stout & Burton Brewed Bitters”.

Meanwhile the firm that had once been synonymous with the Indian beer market faded into obscurity. From at least 1838 the Bow brewery partnership was known as Hodgson and Abbott, after apparently merging with Edwin Abbott of the Sun brewery in Wapping. It was “Abbott (late Hodgson & Abbott) by 1843, but by 1849 Edwin Abbott & Son, Pale Ale and Stout Brewers, were in business on their own at the Bow Bridge brewery. The operation was eulogised in 1861 by the comic writer Charles Stuart Calverley, who wrote a poem called Beer that began:

O Beer! O Hodgson, Guinness, Allsopp, Bass!
Names that should be on every infant’s tongue!

though while the last three were still huge names, the Hodgsons had been completely replaced at the Bow Brewery by the Abbotts at least 18 years before the poem appeared. In 1863 the concern became the Bow Brewery Co Ltd, and in 1869 it turned into Smith, Garrett & Co. In 1927 Smith Garrett was taken over by Taylor Walker of Limehouse. The Bow brewery was eventually demolished in 1933 to make way for London County Council flats.


Martyn Cornell is a historian of beer and brewing who likes to boast that he was born on the site of the former Upper Flask pub in Hampstead. He is a member of the editorial board of Brewery History, the journal of the Brewery History Society, and a founder member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. His publications include Amber, Gold and Black, a history of the beer styles of Britain (priced outrageously on Amazon at time of writing). Also Strange Tales of Ale, more than two dozen historical anecdotes involving beer, from flying mild ale to the D-Day troops in the drop-tanks of Spitfires to history’s most notorious brewer.’

City Displays

Yesterday I went along to three exhibitions by City of London institutions which opened recently. All are well worth visiting; all are free.

Guildhall Art Gallery: Sublime Symmetry
This exhibition features the works of William De Morgan, the late 19th century London ceramicist, friend and collaborator of William Morris, GF Watts and many others. We are long-standing fans of De Morgan. The closure of a dedicated gallery in Wandsworth some years ago tragically meant that a huge collection of his work, which is owned by the De Morgan Foundation, has been kept behind closed doors. It’s important therefore to do all you can to get to this show. The theme is De Morgan’s background in mathematics, how that meshed with his interest in Islamic symmetical forms and from there informed his decorative work. The artist’s father and brother were both celebrated mathemeticians. Augustus De Morgan was the founding Professor of Mathematics at UCL, friend and correspondent of Ada Lovelace among others, and clearly a warm and funny character. It felt good to meet him. But of course, the stars of the show are De Morgan’s sumptuous, exquisite works. Vases, bowls, dishes, tiles all beautifully decorated with figures from nature and myth.
This runs until 28 October.

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Guildhall Library: Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers
More a display than a full blown exhibition, this is the latest in the library’ series which features the City’s livery companies. This year celebrates the 450th anniversary of this company’s first Charter, granted by Elizabeth I 1568, although the company can trace its origins back to 1416. We are shown many objects from its collection, well complemented by items from the library as well. This includes probably my favourite, the so-called “Breeches” Bible from 1589, which was used for the administration of oaths. It is, of course, a late generation English bible before the advent of the Authorised Version (1611) and furhermore is the only example of a chained book in the library’s collection.  In addition we have a trowel (of course), ledgers, ordnances and minute books, a loving cup and a portrait miniature of its most famous member, the playwright Ben Jonson who was a bricklayer before he made it big in the London theatre.
Runs until 31 August.

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The ‘Breeches’ Bible, 1598.

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Ben Jonson’s overdue subscription recorded as paid.

London Metropolitan Archives: Picturing Forgotten London
What I love about the LMA exhibitions – and this one is no exception – is that you see historical images that you’ve never seen before. Not one. This is remarkable considering the hundreds of London history books out there, not to mention what’s online. To choose one example, I thought I’d seen everything on frost fairs: not so!

The headline title is a broad topic indeed which features not forgotten London necessarily, but a London which simply no longer exists, whether the obvious things such a buildings, but also professions, animals, forms of government, everyday life, religion, commerce, housing, transport, technology, sport, food and welfare. The images which bring these themes to life – whether maps, engravings or photographs – are clearly heavily researched astutely chosen.

Warmly recommended. Runs until 31 August.

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London’s last frost fair, 1814.

By the time this print was published, just few days later, the ice had melted, and the fair gone forever. London Bridge can be seen in the distance.

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Rural Archway, 1841.

A winding lane with barns and a farmhouse. It is hard to imagine London’s built-up suburbs as open country but the last farms in the area only disappeared in the early twentieth century.

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Commercial warehousing, buildings and shops in front of St Pancras Station, 1871.

St. Pancras station opened in 1868 but the hotel and grand entrance were not completed until 1876. Older buildings were demolished as part of the project, including this row of houses and shops which stood nearby. It’s hard to imagine this picturesque scene on one of the busiest parts of Euston Road today.

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South Bank, 1952. Featuring County Hall and the Skylon.

This seemingly free-floating steel structure stood outside the Dome of Discovery on the main Festival of Britain site on the South Bank. With no particular function or message, ‘Skylon’ was nonetheless much loved. It was removed shortly after the closing of the Festival.

 

 

A guest post by LH Member Ross MacFarlane. First published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from June 2014.

As incidents of Victorian London go, “The Great Stink” of June 1858 must be one of the most familiar: the merest mention of the words brings to mind cartoons of filthy water (such as the one shown, below) and, most famous of all, the disruption of debates in the Houses of Commons due to the stench wafting in from the river.

But away from Westminster, what was the experience like for other Londoners? Was the Great Stink as bad downriver as it was in Parliament? Here’s a description of Rotherhithe from June 1858, sweltering in the summer heat:

Rotherhithe, in common with all other Metropolitan riverside parishes, has suffered considerable inconvenience during the just elapsed month from the stenches arising from the filthy state of the Thames water. Perhaps in the annals of mankind such a thing was never before known, as that the whole stream of a large river for a distance of seven or eight miles should be in a state of putrid fermentation. The cause of the putrescency, and of the blackish-green colour of the water, is admitted by all to be the hot weather acting upon the ninety millions of gallons of sewage which discharge themselves daily into the Thames. Now, by sewage, must be understood, not merely house and land drainage, but also drainage from bone-boilers, soap-boilers, chemical works, breweries, and above all from gas factories, the last, the most filthy of all, and the most likely to cause corruption of the water. Should any person doubt this assertion, let him compare the foul black and stinking liquid of a sewer which passes by a gas work, with that of a sewer which receives only house and land drainage…

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If you were any doubt about the effect of such proximity to the Thames during this period, this writer leaves you with little doubt how trying life was:
“It is quite impossible to calculate the consequences of such a moving mass of decomposition as the river at present offers to our senses…”

The author of this graphic account was not a noted author nor a campaigning journalist but Dr William Murdoch, then Medical Officer of Health for Rotherhithe, and his account of the summer stench of 1858 comes from his Report on the health of the area he submitted to the Parish of Rotherhithe for that year. It’s also one of the many accounts of life in London revealed through the Wellcome Library’s digitisation project, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports, 1848-1972.

Launched in late 2013, London’s Pulse brings together more than 5500 annual reports from Medical Officers of Health (MoHs) covering the City of London, 32 present-day London boroughs, their predecessors, as well reports from the London County Council and the Port of London.

The reports have been photographed cover-to-cover and turned into text using Optical Character Recognition. Along with the full text, around 275 000 tables have been extracted from the reports as individual files (downloadable as text, HTML, XML and CSV). All this data – as well as images of each page of every report – can be downloaded, freely, from London’s Pulse.

The website also includes contextualising essays from Dr Becky Taylor of Birkbeck and a detailed timeline, placing the reports amongst the forest of legislation which altered the responsibilities of MoHs.

Briefly summarised by Dr Andrea Tanner, MoHs duties – as required by law – “were to inspect and report from time to time on the sanitary condition of their district, to enquire into the existence of disease and into increases in the death rate, to explain the likely causes of disease in their area and to recommend measures to counteract ill-health”.

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As such, analysing MoH reports allows us firstly to trace responses to the major infectious diseases of the 19th century, showing how disease outbreaks could quickly spread but yet, over time, how rates of morality gradually fell across the capital and such maladies as typhoid, smallpox and diphtheria gradually retreated from our streets.

At the same time, the responsibilities of MoHs increased: from their introduction following legislation in the 1840s and 1850s, the scope of their attention widened: from homes, to factories, to ports, to schools; to bakehouses, to dairies and to slaughterhouses – all would come under the gaze of the MoH and their growing staff of sanitation officials, school nurses and environmental officials. The amount of access obtained by the MoH and their staff to these differing kinds of properties illustrates why these reports tell us so much about the lives (and deaths) of previous generations of Londoners.

As such, the reports show just how much information can nominally come under the heading of “medical”: these reports have been used in the past for studies on such wildly differing topics as food and food safety; maternity and child welfare; health promotion; housing; pollution; manufacturing; shops and offices; sanitation; social care; civil liberties; demography; engineering and meteorological conditions. With the greater amount of access provided by London’s Pulse, we hope even more research topics may be added to this list – to take two examples, the London Sound Survey website has started to use the website to uncover what these reports can tell us about London’s attitude towards noise and the Municipal Dreams blog has incorporated data from London’s Pulse into its detailed accounts of the activities of municipal reformers.

As strong as these reports are as evidence, there are of course just one source on London’s health from the 19th century onwards. Given the local level these reports operate on, much supporting material for them can be found at London’s local studies libraries and archives and to promote London’s Pulse and flag up such material, the Wellcome Library held events earlier this year in association with local libraries and archives in Tower Hamlets, Kensington and Chelsea, Southwark and Camden.

Preparing for these events only emphasised the breadth of London life observed by the MoHs. To take the context of London’s response to the First World War, through London’s Pulse you can see illustrations of how manufacture was affected, the effects of the housing shortage, attacks by Zeppelins and even discussion over whether gunfire on the Western Front was behind the increase in rainfall in south East England in 1915 and 1916…

But at the heart of the reports on London’s Pulse are the responses by MoHs and their staff to the health of their local populations. What comes through most of all from the reports is the MoHs attention to detail: their diligent reporting and statistical accounting of the well-being of their local area. Whether it’s in their intense detection into the exact site of a disease outbreak or even in risking injury when illegal traders respond angrily to their investigation of adulterated foodstuffs; MoHs and their staff respond to the challenges they face with a stoic sense of duty. With London’s Pulse we can look at London life through their eyes and see the problems these relatively unsung figures responded to and how they helped alter our city for the better.


London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports, 1848-1972 


Ross MacFarlane
Ross MacFarlane is Research Development Lead at Wellcome Collection, where he is heavily involved in promoting the Wellcome’s library collections. He has researched, lectured and written on such topics as the history of early recorded sound, freak shows and notions of urban folklore in Edwardian London. He has led guided walks around London on the occult past of Bloomsbury and on the intersection of medicine, science and trade in Greenwich and Deptford. As an archivist, he has worked at a number of London institutions including King’s College, Tate Britain, the Royal Society and the Reform Club. Whilst doing so he has handled a mermaid, discovered a lost alchemy manuscript written by Isaac Newton and found out almost too much about Henry Wellcome.