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Archive for January, 2011

bust of charles I

Bust of Charles I at the Banqueting House

So said Charles I in the immediate preamble to his losing his life at the executioner’s block outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, a building his father commissioned and that he himself embellished with the help of Peter Paul Rubens. Seconds later it was all over, and the crowd let out a terrible moan, among their number both Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, two young men destined for great things.

30 January 1649 remains one of the most significant dates in British history, which still resonates today. Most people who think about such things, consider themselves to be a Roundhead or a Cavalier. Both Charles and Cromwell are eminently hissable villains, depending on one’s point of view. But it was a sad day, no question, and even the little king’s detractors then and now cannot begrudge the bravery and dignity with which he met his fate.

Contemporaries realised the enormity of the event, which had consequences for everybody, from the Royal family to the man in the street and for every stripe of religion, but in particular Jews (good) and Catholics (bad). The ramifications for our constitution can hardly be overstated.

For Londoners, Charles still lives among us. His portraits are ubiquitous in our galleries. On the streets, we can admire his bust which sits above the entrance of Banqueting House and gaze up at the equestian statue by Hubert Le Sueur in Trafalgar Square. This is the oldest and first equestrian monument of a British monarch. It was cast in the 1630s and positioned at Charing Cross. After the Civil War, the Parliamentarians ordered it destroyed. Disobeying this instruction, the man given the job instead buried it in his garden. After the Restoration, the statue was re-erected in 1675 in its original position on a plinth designed by Sir Christopher Wren and carved by the master sculptor Grinling Gibbons. It defiantly points down Whitehall, past the Banqueting House towards the Houses of Parliament. This is officially the point where all measurements from London are taken, so forever at the epicentre of his Realm, in death Charles has done rather well.

charles I statue

Equestrian statue of Charles I, Trafalgar Square.

There is a good account of the execution here.
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If you are reading this in time, you might like to attend a commemoration of this event by the “Kings Army” who will be marching along the Mall from St James’s Palace on Sunday 30 January (tomorrow as I write). From 11 am. More information here.

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Recap: “Inside the Body of Henry VIII” by Tudor Tutor
London Remembers by Caroline’s Miscellany
Inside the Fleet: Exploring London’s Lost Rivers by the Great Wen
“When I Please”: The one about Sarah Knight by Lucy Inglis
Watch a Large Ceremonial Procession along the Mall this Sunday by IanVisits
Book Review: London’s Country Houses by austenonly
“The Queen is Slowly Sinking” by the Victorianist
Waiters and Hotel Workers by Lee Jackson

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Fitzroy Square street sign

How old is this street sign?

After visiting the excellent Georgian Group today (special £15 membership discount for London Historians members), I took this picture of what struck me as being quite an old street sign. All to do with the “W” without a qualifying number. So how old is it? With the massive increase in postage during the early Victorian era, postal districts were introduced to London during 1857 and fully implemented by 1 January 1858. When further qualification was needed, the numbers with which we are familiar were added in 1917. So there we have it. Not exactly precise, but our sign dates from sometime between 1857 to 1917. The extra bits after the district code that we use for computerised sorting were implemented gradually during the 1960s up until 1974.

The furthest North London postal district is E4, Chingford; furthest East is SE2, Abbey Wood; furthest South is SE25, South Norwood; and furthest West is W7, Hanwell.

victorian post box

Victorian post box in Dulwich

Much work on early post codes was done by the author Anthony Trollope, who worked for the Royal Mail. He was also instrumental in introducing post boxes.

More info here and here.

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This post is a bit self-indulgent with quite a narrow focus for our general readers, but who knows?  It is specially for John Boulter, a dedicated reader of this blog and who, many years ago, was my sergeant major. Like all good SMs, he was very shouty!

Below are some pictures of a 25 pounder howitzer, one of two positioned outside the National Army Museum in Chelsea, which I visited this afternoon.

The 25 pounder was developed in the 1930s, manufactured by the thousand, and was a workhorse of the British Army in World War II. It caused the enemy trouble aplenty at El Alamein and in other theatres. It last saw action in the Rhodesian and South African armies of the 1970s and 1980s.

Classified as a light- or field-gun, the 25 pounder, as the name suggests, could chuck a 25 pound high explosive shell up to around 11,000 yards with remarkable precision. Its official firing rate was up to six rounds a minute. Nominally having a crew of six, three or four experienced gunners could man a gun with reasonable facility.

Further reading: Wikipedia’s entry is excellent.

25 pounder

25 pounder. The business end. Missing its platform, which spoils the aesthetic somewhat.

25 pounder

From the rear (or trail).

25 pounder

You set the range of the target on the silver cone thing. You use your dial sight for aiming (missing, sits in the brass cradle at the top). You turn the brass wheels to set the barrel for elevation and traverse. You pull the trigger (the brass handle between the two red bolts). Boom!

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silvertown explosion

Not enemy action, rather home-grown explosion. Picture: Borough of Newham.

Today marks the anniversary of a TNT explosion which claimed 73 lives and injured a further 400.

At  6:52 pm on 19 January 1917 in a Silvertown factory, 50 tons of TNT ignited in a massive blast which completely destroyed the premises, caused widespread damage to the surrounding area, and could be heard throughout most of London. It wasn’t the biggest or the worst industrial explosion in Britain during World War I, but it became the most notorious.

From early in the conflict, Britain found herself critically short of munitions. So the War Office decided to expand the capacity of the Brunner Mond (later known as ICI) factory in West Ham, against the advice of Brunner Mond themselves, on safety grounds. On the fateful evening a fire broke out in the melt-pot room, precipitating the fatal blast. An estimated 70,000 properties were damaged, including a gasometer which released an enormous fireball into the sky.

While no actual cause of the accident was identified, enemy involvement was ruled out. To this day, the site of the Silvertown factory remains derelict.

Sources: This incident is well-documented on the web. Here is a partial list of links.
Wikipedia
Port Cities
Newham Archive 

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st mary's putney

St Mary's Church, Putney

I am an admirer of both Sir John Soane and the American artist Norman Rockwell. So on Sunday we took a drive around the South Circular to see the Rockwell exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, one of Soane’s surviving commissions. We took a pit stop at Putney Bridge to admire St Mary’s church. It has a very pretty crenellated tower which looks lovely at night when lit, but one always finds oneself in fearsome traffic and unable to make an impromtu visit. Hoorah, the clock was working accurately and on the south side of the tower is accompanied by a matching sun-dial. The church itself was unfortunately locked up, something for another time.

We couldn’t visit Dulwich without taking a quick look at Dulwich College, founded in 1609 by Edward Alleyn as the College of God’s Gift. The main building from around 1870 is an ornate Victorian affair in a hybrid neo-Classical and Gothic style by the architect Charles Barry Jr. It reminds me a bit of the Natural History Museum.  

Dulwich College

Dulwich College

What I love about Dulwich Village is that although it is in the midst of South London suburbia, it is nonetheless rather secluded situated as it is in copious parkland. Hence it is one of the few places where one can get a sense of what London must have been like before about 1850, when it was topographically a tight urban metropolis surrounded by satellite villages.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery is as I remembered it except in much better order, both inside and out. Pristine. The collection too is in fabulous order, many pictures having benefitted from restoration in recent years. Clearly much work has gone into making the place perfect for its bicentenary this year, celebrating the endowment in 1811 which led to its becoming Britain’s first public art gallery. Part of marking the year involves a monthly exhibit of a noteworthy painting, on loan. January features the Thomas Lawrence portrait of Sir John Soane. Normally residing the rather gloomy Soane Museum library, here the picture looks magnificent, a kindly looking man in front of that signature dark red ground that Lawrence loved to employ to fabulous effect.

dulwich picture gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery, designed by Sir John Soane

Norman Rockwell has no connection to London that I know of. No matter, the decision to mount an exhibition featuring his work is an inspired one and all credit to Dulwich for staging a show that one might expect to see at one of the big city galleries. From the 1920s to the 1960s, Rockwell spent the greater part of his career creating cover artwork for the popular American magazine Saturday Evening Post. Several hundred of these original covers are displayed on the left side of the exhibition. Facing them are the original canvases of a selected few dozen of them.

Rockwell’s skills as a draughtsman, illustrator and oil painter are supreme and plain to see. But he is criticised – rather too easily –  for the folksy, over-sentimentalised quality of his pictures. I can’t help feeling this is resentment at his success in manipulating an emotional reaction from the viewer. Many of his images are deeply moving idealised visions of  blue-collar America, how Americans would like to see themselves. We, as Europeans with vestiges of class still in place and perhaps seeing ourselves as being more sophisticated, can find this hard to take, hard to stomach even. But if you really look at some of these images with both open heart and mind, you realise Rockwell’s mastery at extracting every last drop of pathos or humour from them. In particular the funny ones. Any cartoonist will tell you how difficult it is to make a picture funny, even with a caption: Rockwell succeeds at making brilliantly funny images with no verbal assistance whatsoever.

Rockwell Runaway

Norman Rockwell, (1894-1978), The Runaway-Runaway Boy and Clown, 1922, oil on canvas 36” x 24”, signed lower right , Life magazine cover, June 1, 1922, © 2010 Images by The National Museum of American Illustration, Newport, RI, USA, and the American Illustrators Gallery, NYC © 2010 Saturday Evening Post covers by SEPS, Curtis Publishing

 The above picture is unquestionably rather smaltzy. However, it clearly demonstrates Rockwell’s utter mastery of the brush, composition and use of light.

Rockwell Charwomen

Norman Rockwell, (1894-1978), Charwomen in Theater, 1946, oil paint over photographic base, 14 1/2 x 11 in., Signed "Norman Rockwell" bottom right, inscribed "To Morgan Harding sincerely Norman Rockwell" on the mat, Saturday Evening Post, April 6, 1946 cover, © 2010 Images by The National Museum of American Illustration, Newport, RI, USA, and the American Illustrators Gallery, NYC © 2010 Saturday Evening Post covers by SEPS, Curtis Publishing

This picture is a preparatory oil sketch for an illustration which was never completed. The story goes that Rockwell, with some trepidation, asked some well-to-do neighbours whether they would mind modelling for him as charladies, but they were delighted to help him.

Some of Rockwell’s commissions were for portrait work. A clear expert in characature, in portraiture he seems less assured, with one or two exceptions: his image of Nehru is excellent.

Norman Rockwell’s America runs until 27 March.

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holloway remedy jar

From London to Trinidad: for all your gout and rheumatism problems. Picture: Birj Goberdhan

Yesterday a reader from Trinidad sent me some photos of artifacts recently found on her estate. They included a 1903 ceramic gout remedy container by “Holloways” of London. As a graduate of Royal Holloway College, I immediately realised there must be a connection to the college’s founder, Victorian snake oil entrepreneur Thomas Holloway (1800 – 83) .

Originally hailing from Devonport, Holloway started late as a businessman, in the 1830s. His early attempts to hawk patent remedies were spectacularly unsuccessful, putting him in a debtor’s prison. This was largely as a result of a debilitating feud with his erstwhile partner, the Italian Felix Albinolo, who had introduced Holloway to the lotions and potions business.

On release, he dusted himself down and started again, concentrating on digestive pills from his premises in the Strand. Holloway’s success from this time on was based on newspaper advertising, in which he invested huge amounts. Spending typically £5,000 in the early days on an already decent turnover of £20,000, by his death in 1883 his company was shelling out £50,000 per annum on advertising globally, according to Holloway himself. the business also developed a thriving export market to the colonies, although he was less successful in the USA where one suspects that local snake oil operators provided stiff competition.

When his premises in the Strand were demolished to make space for the new law courts, Holloway moved his operation to New Oxford Street in 1867, now employing over 100 staff. After his death in 1883, the company continued until 1930, when its viable products were taken over by the Beecham company.

Holloway was also a canny investor. It was his policy immediately to sink his company’s profits into loans, acting effectively as a pseudo-bank. He was not known as a sympathetic creditor.

Holloway and his wife Jane had no children, and towards the end of his life his thoughts turned to his legacy. On the advice of his friend the seventh Earl of Shaftsbury (of Piccadilly Circus fame), he first endowed a mental hospital in Virginia Water, not far from his home, at a cost of £300,000. In memory of his late wife, Holloway decided to endow a college for women which became the huge ornate brick edifice in Egham known as Royal Holloway College, by dint of  having been opened by Queen Victoria. Both of these institutions opened their doors shortly after the death of their benefactor.

Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry by T.A.B. Corley.

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