Archive for March, 2011

Caroline’s Miscellany has been in blistering form of late with four or five excellent reads, not least a reference to another blog new to us: Bollards of London.
Carlton House by Patrick Baty
“The Noise of the People” The London Protests before Oak Apple Day by Georgian London
Celebrating the noble tradition of defacing London statues by The Great Wen
Henry VIII Wine Cellars and the Banqueting House of Whitehall by London-In-Sight
What’s in a Name? …Mayfair by Exploring London
Henry Wainwright: Doe Eyes and Dismemberment by Songs from the Howling Sea
Betty and the Boys Club by Songs from the Howling Sea
Upon her heade a crowne of refined golde by Dainty Ballerina
Monarchs Who Never Were – Hauntings of the Tower of London, Part 3 by the Anne Boleyn Files
A Snowy Day in 1850s London by Victorianist
Madness, Murder and Fairy Folk by Virtual Victorian
(because I love the story of Richard Dadd, totally bonkers Victorian painter)
Recycling by Lee Jackson
Lady Flabella by Lee Jackson

Read Full Post »

Overshadowed by Wren and Newton, Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703), the Restoration architect and scientist, had one of the most enquiring minds in an age of enquiring minds. Appointed the first curator of experiments of the Royal Society, he gave us Hooke’s Law of Elasticity and our first understanding of capillary action of liquids. A pioneering user of the microscope, he wrote the famous and beautifully illustrated Micrographia, possibly the most famous scientific book ever published.

Like his contemporaries, he was interested in “the Physik” and the effects of various treatments and cures. This included cannabis, or hemp, which he tried for himself. This is what he wrote:

It is a certain plant which grows very common in India, and the Vertues or Quality thereof, are there very well known; and the Use thereof (tho’ the Effects are very strange, and, at first hearing, frightful enough) is very general and frequent; and the Person, from whom I receiv’d it, hath made very many Trials of it, on himself, with very good Effect. ‘Tis call’d, by the Moors, Gange; by the Chingalese Comsa; and by the Portugals, Bangue. The Dose of it is about as much as may fill a common Tobacco-Pipe, the Leaves and Seeds being dried first, and pretty finely powdered. This Powder being chewed and swallowed, or washed down, by a small Cup of Water, doth, in a short Time, quite take away the Memory and Understanding; so that the Patient understands not, nor remembereth any Thing that he seeth, heareth, or doth, in that Extasie, but becomes, as it were, a mere Natural, being unable to speak a Word of Sense; yet is he very merry, and laughs, and sings, and speaks Words without Coherence, not knowing what he saith or doth; yet is he not giddy, or drunk,  but walks and dances and sheweth many odd Tricks; after a little Time he falls asleep, and sleepeth very soundly and quietly; and when he wakes he finds himself mightily refresh’d, and exceeding hungry. And that which troubled his Stomach, or Head, before he took it, is perfectly carried off without leaving any ill Symptom, as Giddiness, Pain in the Head or Stomach, or Defect of Memory of any Thing (besides of what happened) during the Time of its Operation.

Pretty accurate, I’m sure you’ll agree. And written at a time when scientists like Hooke were more dedicated to observation and enquiry than to scaremongering.

Source: Quoted in Bedlam. London and its Mad, by Catharine Arnold

Read Full Post »

A good day for West London. First, the 157th Boat Race showing off our beloved neck of the woods to the world at large. Helicopter’s eye view of wonderful bridges and Thameside sites. It’s surprising how much greenery still exists in these built up areas. The Boat Race organisers no doubt kindly arranged the start for 17:00 hours so many of us could get home sharpish in time from the 31st West London Local History Conference.

The conference is sponsored by local history societies:
Barnes & Mortlake
Brentford & Chiswick
Fulham & Hammersmith
West Middlesex Family History Society

This year’s theme was Scientists & Innovators in West London History. The near sell-out audience were treated to talks on a variety of absorbing topics: Dr John Dee, an Elizabethan scientist from Mortlake, the remnants of whose library give us one of the biggest bodies of source evidence for Western natural philosophy in the late 16C;  George III’s scientific instruments from Kew (now in the Science Museum); the history of Price’s, the biggest candle manufacturer in the world during the Victorian era, which finally shut down as recently as 2000, although its brand name lives on; the potions, powders, pharmaceuticals and popular grooming products of McLeans and Beechams of the Great West Road (now part of GlaxoSmithKline); innovative 18C nursery gardeners in West London who nurtured pineapples, pears and elm trees.

west london history conferencewest london history conferencewest london history conferencewest london history conferencewest london history conference

My favourite was Price’s candles. We take candles for granted, today they are fripperies. But not so long ago, except for open hearth fires, they were our only source of artificial light. Beeswax candles we all know about. But it was interesting to discover how the 19C chemists at Price’s went to enormous lengths to find alternatives to the stinky and cheaper tallow-based models. Now I feel educated on the topic.

At just £8 for a full day’s worth of fascinating local history, this is terrific value. We congratulate the organisers for a fabulous conference and look forward to next year.

Read Full Post »

A few days ago I discovered that the free Woolwich ferry service was introduced in 1889 at the behest of Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1819 – 1891). That man again. Once one begins to study London’s history in any kind of depth, his name crops up time after time. His dabs are everywhere. And yet, for one who made such an impact on the topography of our city and the health of its citizens, this Victorian engineer remains relatively obscure to the public at large.

sir joseph bazalgette memorial embankment

Sir Joseph Bazalgette memorial, Thames Embankment. Physically a small man, sporting a fine set of whiskers per the Victorian custom.

Basil Jet. A strange name. Like his near-contemporaries the Brunels, Bazalgette’s family were immigrants from France in the late 18th Century. Isambard Brunel knew Joseph Bazalgette well and, in fact, strongly endorsed him for the post of Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1856. Bazalgette held this post for over 30 years, during which time he transformed London’s landscape – above and below ground – in a thousand ways.

His greatest achievement, that for which he is remembered at all, was to build London’s modern sewage system, the same one which serves us to this day, 150 years later. Bazalgette had already been heavily involved in improvements to London’s sewage works during the 1840s. Welcome as this was, it could not keep up with the twofold problem: raw sewage overflowing into the streets; and all sewage being dispersed directly into the Thames of Central London. Things came to a head in 1858, the year of the “Great Stink”. A particularly hot summer made life in London literally unbearable. Parliament was virtually unable to operate and almost decamped to Oxford or Henley. So they passed a Bill to give London’s chief engineer full rein to come up with a proper solution.

Bazalgette and his team set to work, building the new system in stages, which took until the early 1870s. In calculating the diameter of the pipes, he made a generous estimate of the daily “poo-age” of an adult and multiplied this by the population count. This gave him his figure. Then, the far-sighted engineer doubled it, hence giving at least four times the volume immediately required. Had he not done this, it’s estimated our sewers would have overflowed sometime in the 1960s.

In order to carry all of London’s sewage many miles downstream, Bazalgette had to build a huge main running parallel to the Thames. This involved embanking the river from Chelsea all the way to Blackfriars, creating the Albert (1868), Victoria (1870) and Chelsea (1874) Embankments and creating 52 acres of dry land. The work also allowed for the building of the Metropolitan District Line (now District/Circle) of the Underground through most of this section and above ground giving us the lovely Embankment Gardens  between the river and the first ranks of buildings.

Of course, moving vast quantities of sewage required four massive steam-powered pumping stations and Bazalgette oversaw their construction: Deptford (1865), Crossness (1865), Abbey Mills (1868), and Western (1875). Although decommissioned, the linked stations still exist. They are remarkably beautiful given their mundane though essential duties.

The by-product of this magnificent system was that it almost eradicated cholera in the city entirely, quite apart from myriad other health benefits. Bazalgette viewed himself very much as a sanitation engineer first and foremost, taking great pride in his contribution to the public health.

While all this was going on, Bazalgette had to take care of all his day-to-day duties as well, which mainly involved managing surveys and reports of umpteen other projects to the Board.

In 1877, all London’s bridges were taken into public ownership and made toll-free. Bazalgette had to survey them all. Finding three of them not up to scratch, he rebuilt them to his own design: Battersea Bridge, the beautiful Hammersmith suspension bridge, and Putney Bridge. All are still with us today, although Hammersmith is not up to the hard work any more and is restricted. Only vociferous opposition by local residents has saved her from replacement in the recent past. Putney, perhaps surprisingly, is London’s busiest road bridge.

putney bridge

Bazalgette’s Putney Bridge

We come to the roads. Like the Thames and the sewers and the bridges, the roads of London were completely inadequate by the late 19C. Bazalgette  involved himself of the building or re-building of at least five of our best-known thoroughfares: Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue (new build), Northumberland Avenue (new build), Southwark Street, Queen Victoria Street.

Such was Bazalgette’s renown, he was approached by cities and towns, both in Britain and abroad (Pest in Hungary, Odessa in Russia), to act as consultant on improving their amenities. Somehow, he found time to do this too.

Born in Enfield, London’s greatest engineer was very much a Londoner. He lived for many years in St John’s Wood and died at his home in Wimbledon in 1891. He and his wife Maria had 10 children. One of his present day descendents gave us the TV programme Big Brother (O tempora, O mores!).

If you cross the road from Embankment Station and walk 50 yards or so upstream, you will see the portrait bust memorial to Sir Joseph Bazalgette, surely an inadequate commemoration for the man who gave us so much.

So next time you are “on the throne”, or wandering up Shaftesbury Avenue, or sitting on a bench in Embankment Gardens, or driving over Putney Bridge, or travelling on the District Line, remember Wren’s self-penned epitaph, which applies equally to Sir Joseph Bazalgette: LECTOR, SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE, Reader, if you seek his monument look around you.

Wikipedia, here.
Dictionary of National Biography portrait by Denis Smith (subscription required)
A very good book covering the sewers is The Great Stink by Stephen Halliday.

Read Full Post »

We have at last posted some pictures on Flickr which we’ll soon integrate with a gallery section on the web site and maybe here on the blog. Just got to figure out the technology, always a distraction when one simply wants to get on with the history. The job of the Flickr gallery will be threefold. 1) Allow us to share thousands of London historical pics that we are accumulating. 2) Give people a flavour of London Historians activities 3) Allow members to enjoy and share pics from our events.

launch party on flickr

Last week’s post with some images from our launch event proved extremely popular, so we kick off Flickr with the whole set from the evening, here.

Read Full Post »

After many months of arranging, I finally managed to access St Andrew Undershaft, which is located in St Mary Axe, at the foot of the Swiss Re building, aka The Gherkin. This early 16C church is normally closed to the public, but the good people of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, who administer the building, kindly gave me and three fellow historians the run of the place for well over an hour. It is not especially remarkable as old churches go, but is notable for a number of reasons: it is one of the few surviving pre-Restoration churches in the City; it survived the Great Fire of London, the Blitz and an IRA bomb in 1992. But most important of all, it was the parish church of John Stow, who in 1598 published the Survey of London, an invaluable document which tells us much about life in late-Tudor London. He is commemorated in an alabaster monument to the left of the altar, holding a quill pen. The quill is replaced every three years in a solemn ceremony run by the Merchant Taylor’s Company. The next service is on 6 April in a few weeks’ time.

john stow

John Stow, “father of London history”. His nose appears to have a Michael Jackson quality.

Like many of the City’s churches, there is the business of the strange name. The shaft that the church was under was, in medieval times, an adjacent may pole, which by all accounts was huge, possibly taller than the church tower. Festivals were celebrated here until in 1517, the apprentices of London staged a violent riot at the site and the City authorities had the pole removed. It eventually perished entirely the following century when the Puritan administration of the Commonwealth ordered it cut up and burned, it having pagan rather than Christian significance.

st andrew undershaft

St Andrew Undershaft. The Nave.

More info here and here.

Read Full Post »

My blog discovery of the week (thanks to the blogger himself contacting me) is Turnip Rail who writes detailed and interesting posts about the development of the railways. Let’s start with this:
Making a Mess of a Station – Extending Waterloo Station in 1878 and 1885 by Turnip Rail
Keats House, Hampstead: an architectural and artistic re-build by Suzie Grogan
The Man Who Saved the Midland Grand Hotel by The Great Wen
Old Kent Road and the Hangman by Caroline’s Miscellany
The Ghost of Buildings Past: Carlton House guest post by the excellent Patrick Baty at Georgian London
Curious London Memorials: The Bard or Not the Bard by Exploring London
Isaac ‘Ikey’ Solomon – Privates and the Prince of Thieves by Songs from the Howling Sea
The Execution of Thomas Seymour by the Anne Boleyn Files
Elizabeth I’s Early Life – Illegitimate Siblings by the Elizabeth Files
Shot in Lambeth by Lee Jackson

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »