Archive for March, 2013

I tend to avoid stuff that is widely covered, especially if I can’t bring anything significantly new or different to the party. But the occasion must be marked. Today it’s exactly 80 years since the “modern” version of London Underground’s tube map was published. It was a foldy pocket version, an item which was common enough to London’s commuters previously and indeed to this day. The big difference was that Harry Beck‘s design was an instant hit with the public and apart from tweaks and updates, it’s essentially still the same map. The most noticeable updates occurred early on in any case: diamond junctions changed to circular; station names changed from the tube line colour to black and from all capitals to mixed case.

harry beck tube map 1933

Harry Beck’s orginal 1933 map.

harry beck tube map 1933

Harry Beck’s orginal 1933 map (detail).

harry beck blue plaqueOver the past 80 years, millions have relied on Beck’s lovely map to figure out, at a glance, where they need to go. At last his efforts have been properly recognised with an English Heritage blue plaque on the house where he was born, in Leyton. The honours were performed by Sam Mullins, current Director of the London Transport museum. The text of the plaque itself has been set in London Transport’s house typeface: New Johnston*. This has only been thus employed three times previously, for Frank Pick and Lord Ashfield, the two men who shaped the Underground in the first half of the 20C; and Edward Johnston himself, designer of the eponymous face.

Beck worked for London Underground as a draughtsman from 1925, developing his map at home and in his spare time. During this period he liaised with management; initially they responded luke-warmly and with constant demands for changes, most of which Beck disagreed with. The map had its first public airing on 25 March 1933. Under a gentlemen’s agreement, only Beck could adjust of finally approve changes to “his” map, although London Underground breached this on several occasions, until eventually in 1960 Beck gave up the candle and his work on the map came to an end.

Why is Harry Smiling? 

Beck’s intransigence over his map gave him a reputation in some quarters of being difficult. But not humourless. Quite the opposite, in fact, as is clear in this happy-chappy portrait photo.

harry beck

But what’s that in his hands? It is most definitely not the Tube map. It is, rather, a spoof map based on a wiring diagram which was published in the London Underground staff magazine. This possibly gave rise to the theory that Beck’s inspiration for the Tube map was wiring diagrams. So he was happy to take the piss out of his own work, but that was very strictly his exclusive perogative!

harry beck spoof map tube

Harry Beck’s spoof Underground map.

Harry Beck spoof Underground map.

Harry Beck’s spoof Underground map (detail).


* New Johnston is a near-imperceptible recent update of Edward Johnston’s original Johnston Sans.

Read Full Post »

A guest post by Wendy Wallace.

old bailey

The 20 tonne gilded statue of Justice by F.W. Pomeroy.

On a bitterly cold March evening, a group of London Historians had the opportunity to look around the Old Bailey – London’s most famous and historic criminal court.

There’s been a court on the site since the 1500s and much of the pomp and gravitas attached to this venerable institution survives. Dressed in an elaborate lace bib over a specially tailored suit, a black rosette hanging down from the collar at the back (a wig guard, for catching the powder from the syrup someone in his position would traditionally have worn) our guide and host had a title as elaborate as his garb.

Charles Henty, Secondary of London and Under Sheriff, High Bailiff of Southwark, is an ex-military man who’s been running the Bailey for the last eight years. Disarmingly, when asked how long it took him to master the job, he replied that he is still learning.

And it is quite a job. The Bailey contains 18 courts and what the Secondary’s talk made clear above all else is that it’s a business. Each court costs around £80-100 per minute to operate and keeping courts running, with defendants, counsel, judges, press, relatives and public all in the right place at the right time, is a mighty exercise in logistics and security.

The Bailey – so known for the street on which it sits, is in its current incarnation an architectural mix, with the old building opened by Edward V11 in 1907 and the ‘new’ extension built in the 1970s. Its courtrooms and steps are familiar to all of us through television dramas and news programmes; trials ranging from the Kray twins to that of Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, and the quashing of the convictions of the Guilford Four, have occurred here.

In the sombre grandeur of court number one with its scarred wooden desks, curtained witness box, wide dock and under a dome through which pours what looks like natural light but is in fact electric light, Secondary, as he is addressed, gave a witty and passionate talk about an institution which lies at the heart of British justice. He expressed his concern over the ever-younger ages of defendants. Eleven and twelve year old children have in recent years appeared in this dock charged with murder, and rape.

Outside the main courts, briefs congregate in a magnificent marbled hall, its domed ceilings decorated with painted allegories of justice by the artist Gerald Moira. (Moira slipped in his own face in to a couple of these, showing himself as a artist in one and, in his painting of the Blitz, a tea-drinking crone.)

High on a wall in the new building, an embedded shard of glass has been allowed to remain; it’s a tiny and telling reminder of the IRA bomb that partially destroyed the building in 1973.

Down two or three storeys, in the bowels of the building, carpet gives way to quarry tiles. Here the walls are not Carrera marble but the most utilitarian painted brick. Here, in small cells, prisoners are held on their way in to and out of court.

And beyond this holding area, outside the building, in the most sombre and spine-chilling aspect of the visit, Secondary walked us by torchlight down Dead Man’s Walk – a series of brick doorways of ever decreasing size through which condemned prisoners once made their lonely way to the gallows.

The Old Bailey seems to indicate in its architecture the range of social positions, from the most exalted to the lowliest. One can’t help wondering how many of the defendants down the ages – if they’d had the advantages of those who run the system – would never have been ended up in the dock.


Wendy Wallace is an author and journalist, whose first novel – The Painted Bridge – was published in 2012.


Our visit was also covered by London Historians member, the writer Vic Keegan here.

Here’s a video clip showing interiors of the Old Bailey and featuring Charles Henty, Esq – Secondary of London and Under Sheriff, High Bailiff of Southwark.

Read Full Post »

Wellcome library, London.I’ve spent several pleasurable hours yesterday and today poking around the vast and growing  Wellcome Library archive online, using my new reader card. Remarkably, they have managed a photo of me that is a reasonable likeness and less thuggish than usual. This is the most trivial of many very good reasons to embrace this excellent institution, right in our midst on the Euston Road, a matter of minutes’ walk from Euston Square and Warren Street stations. If you are researching social history in any way, or are perhaps simply curious, I recommend you do so too.

Last week a group of London Historians Members had an after hours tour of the library with Ross MacFarlane, its Research Engagement Officer, followed by a lecture and show-and-tell of items from the archives with Senior Archivist Dr Chris Hilton. All of us were struck by both the scale and scope of materials that the library keeps. On the open shelves alone, in addition to books, there is a vast collection of academic and popular periodicals.

Most people who have heard of the Wellcome Library but not visited it will think that it’s a medical library. It is that, of course, but it is also so much more. For while Wellcome does concern itself with disease and medicine, it is – to be more accurate –  a rich repository of social history. So hygiene comes into it, and therefore engineering. Diet comes into it, and therefore cuisine and recipes. Dermatology, and therefore tattoos. Alcoholism, alcohol and therefore gin and beer and Hogarth. And so on.

Apart from books and periodicals noted above, the library is a huge repository of primary source material: diaries, papers, prints, pamphlets, photographs, paintings and film. Even the prostitute cards from London phone boxes! Eclectic. Thorough. It also keeps the records from many institutions but notably hospitals. Digitisation of these objects, documents, papers, records is a massive ongoing project and constantly being put online for researchers.  Again: get your reader card!

All of this is the legacy of Sir Henry Wellcome (1853 – 1936), the London-based American pharmaceutical magnate – massively wealthy – who poured every penny he could spare adding to his collection of books, papers and artifacts, with an eye to establishing a public museum and library after his death. The handsome neo-classical building on the Euston Road which is the home to the Wellcome Collection and Wellcome Library was built in 1932 and extensively refurbished in the mid-2000s. It has a rather good cafe to the right of the spaceous entrance foyer: do give it a go.

Here are a few pictures from our special visit.

wellcome library

Ross MacFarlane in full flow: such an enthusiast.

wellcome library

How a good library should look.

wellcome library

Dr Chris Hilton tells us about Sir William Petty, 17C stats pioneer; the 1930s Peckham Experiment; Patrick Abercrombie, town planner; the 1858 diary of James Patterson; until we ran out of time: lovely stuff.

wellcome library

Ross and Chris (foreground) doing show and tell.

Thanks to Ross and Chris for a superb evening. For more information on Wellcome, the Wellcome Library and more, here are some great links Ross sent me:

Library website: http://wellcomelibrary.org/
Info on joining: http://wellcomelibrary.org/using-the-library/joining-the-library/
How to… http://wellcomelibrary.org/using-the-library/how-to/
Remote access resources: http://wellcomelibrary.org/using-the-library/how-to/remote-access-to-e-resources/

Wellcome Images: http://wellcomeimages.org/ (which you don’t have to be a registered Library member to use)
Wellcome Film YouTube page (including films from 1930s Bermondsey films): http://www.youtube.com/user/WellcomeFilm
Library Blog: http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/
Library Twitter: https://twitter.com/wellcomelibrary

Archives sources Guides: http://wellcomelibrary.org/using-the-library/subject-guides/ (note those divvied up for different parts of London)

And elsewhere…
Medical Archives and Manuscripts Survey and Hospital Records Database http://wellcomelibrary.org/about-us/about-the-collections/archives-and-manuscripts/finding-medical-archives-elsewhere/

And two projects that will be of interest:
Medical London (http://www.medicallondon.org/)
Sick City (http://sickcityproject.wordpress.com/)

One of our group, the Westiminster Guide Joanna Moncrieff, has mentioned Wellcome Library in a recent post on her blog, plus other good London research institutions you should know about.

Read Full Post »

A Guest Post by Stephen Cooper.

In research for my book of the Great War told through the experiences of men from one London rugby club, I stumbled across a neglected landmark with a poignant tale. In 2010 I wrote these opening words for a chapter:

“Head south over London Bridge, towards Borough High Street, the old coaching road to Kent. Southwark cathedral crouches to the right and the clumsy bulk of the station’s viaduct looms ahead. Look for a once-splendid, once-white façade: an elaborate blend of arch, balustrade and ornament, with carved swags of hops, grapes and even a stag’s head. Now grey with soot, this, like Miss Havisham’s wedding-cake, is a ghost of a building.

The hands of its clock with black Roman numerals are fixed at 11.47 as they have been since the early 1960s. Ragged shrubs sprout from crevices where no plant should grow, and the faïence frontage offers a tempting canvas to the graffiti artist. This wan face among grimy walls and thrusting plate-glass neighbours like the Shard is a ghostly survivor from another era. It is a corner of the capital where time has indeed stopped.

For over a century, Findlater’s Corner has been a familiar sight to the southbound City worker, ‘passed or seen by more persons every day than any other spot in London’*. The current structure is shrunken from its Victorian original by the encroachments of railway and advertising hoardings. Peter Ackroyd’s London the Biography observes the lingering spirit of place that binds many capital landmarks to their past. Call this instead a ‘place of spirit’, for today it is a branch of an eccentric national wine-seller, evoking its first incarnation in 1856 as headquarters of Findlater, Mackie, Todd & Co. Ltd, Wine & Spirit Merchants.

In the cruellest month of April 1915, a boy brings a curt telegram from the War Office to these same premises, addressed to the Chairman. Its formulaic words, by now dreaded in households across the country, regret a death in the family. A brother, husband and father are all fallen in one man. Since that day another spirit has haunted this corner: the gregarious wine-merchant, soldier and international rugby player, Alec Todd.”

The chapter goes on to tell of Todd’s experience as a British Lion rugby player in South Arica in 1896, of his fighting the Boer War there four years later and of his death near Ypres in 1915. He had nominated his brother, James, as Next of Kin (NOK) so that wife Alice would not hear the fateful knock at her Ascot door. He was shot through the neck at Hill 60 east of Ypres on April 18. The National Archive shows a flurry of telegrams from the War Office to the Norfolk Regiment depot to ascertain the correct NOK. By the time the ‘serious wounding’ telegram arrives at Findlater’s Corner three days later, CaptainTodd is dead in a Casualty Clearing Station near Poperinghe.

clock findlater's corner

Picture: Stephen May.

The stopped clock was much photographed and internet searches revealed a history of graffiti headaches for the Council. The romantic in me speculated whether the telegram had arrived at 11:47 that April morning in 1915. Had the clock stopped perhaps on the 50th anniversary of Alec’s death? No way of knowing, but it made a good story. That is, until October 27, 2012.

This was the afternoon, three months after the book’s publication, when riding over London Bridge on my trusty Vespa, I glanced up to find the hands at 02:30. Aghast, I enquired inside: ‘Ah, that would be Boris’, I was told. Turns out our esteemed Mayor, bicycling to a meeting at his nearby City Hall, had trusted the clock’s time, only to arrive late. In a fit of civic efficiency, he commanded that a Derby clockmaker be summoned to restore the clock and change the ‘hands of time’. Thanks, Boris. The story is too good to lose, but I have relegated the Mayor’s intervention to a footnote – by way of revenge.
Todd maintains his mystique even in death. He is buried in ‘Pop’ but is also named on the Menin Gate, memorial to those with no known grave. Better that he is doubly remembered than he, or any man, be forgotten.

The full story and many other London nuggets can be discovered in ‘The Final Whistle: the Great War in Fifteen Players’ by Stephen Cooper, (Spellmount ) £14.99 from all the usual sources and also this month’s LH Members’ prize draw, don’t forget to enter.

*The Wine Trade Review  9 November 1934.

Read Full Post »

norman parkinsonThis year is the centenary of Londoner of Note, Norman Parkinson (1913 – 1990), the tall, eccentric photographer with an aristocratic air and mischievous twinkle in his eye. And what an eye! Whether in black and white or colour, Parkinson mastered the medium with images which oozed class. Although he shot celebs in the second part of his career, first and foremost he was a fashion photographer; he gave mysterious, striking fashion models a uniquely cool allure. Parkinson’s best-known fashion picture is probably the one on the right, The Art of Travel, shot in Kenya for Vogue in 1951 and featuring his wife, Wenda, whom he used a lot in the late 40s and 1950s.

To celebrate Parkinson’s centenary, there is a free show of about a hundred of his works at the Lyttleton Theatre, National Theatre. They are broadly representative of his early fashion work for Vogue, featuring rangy, elegant models though to the celeb beautiful people of the 60s, 70s and 80s, including the Queen in that famous triple portrait in blue with Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother. The Beatles, Burton and Taylor, Jagger and Hall, Bowie. And on and on. Most will be drawn to these I suspect, but I loved the mid century fashion stuff. Quite beautiful models and exquisite clothes: gorgeous women in designer tweed. And it is stunning. I don’t think you see that nowadays: couturiers have lost that. Not that I’m any expert in such matters.

But you don’t have to be an expert to know your eyes are being treated to the work of a complete Master.

Lifework: Norman Parkinson’s Century of Style runs at the Lyttleton Theatre Space at the National Theatre until 12 May. Free.

Here are my favourite two images from the show.

norman parkinson

India. A goat, a peasant boat woman and a determined posh gal in designer daywear. Bizarre and beautiful.

norman parkinson

Three Little Dresses, 1961. Shot in Florence, a masterclass in composition. Even the pigeon looks deliberate.

Read Full Post »

IMG_0550bReaders will know that I’m quite the fan of the Guildhall. This position was strongly reinforced yesterday when I had the massive privilege of a tour of the Library with its Principal Librarian, Peter Ross.

The Guildhall Library was founded in the 1420s thanks to an endowment by that man, Richard Whittington, the wealthy Lord Mayor of London. It was, of course, a manuscript library to begin with, until print technology entered the picture at the turn of the 16C.

Then disaster struck in the late 1540s when scalliwag of history the Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector, decided to help himself to all of the collection, transporting it to his palace in three large carts, as recorded by John Stow. There is no record of what became of the collection thereafter. One would like to think that his demise at the executioner’s block was some pay-back for overdue books.

And that was the end of that until a library at the Guildhall was revived in 1820s. A little later a purpose-build home was constructed in 1870 to the East of Guildhall, designed by Horace Jones, the Tower Bridge man. Luckily it took just the one hit during the Blitz, although the books had been removed to safety.

In the 1960s the current library was built as an extension to the West of the Guildhall. Among much else, it houses the records of about 80 of the City’s 108 Livery Companies; records of Lloyds of London; records public companies within the Square Mile; admin records from the Stock Exchange. Plus, of course, many thousands of books and manuscripts, posters, broadsides and miscellaneous ephemera going back centuries. Other functions of the Library are materials conservation and protection, and it has a budget to acquire any historical printed matter relating to the City which comes onto the market.

It is the largest library in the world devoted to a single city.

The Guildhall Library is open to all and welcomes the opportunity to help members of the public with their research. It also hosts small exhibitions and displays (currently there is one featuring objects from the Worshipful Company of Bowyers (ie bow-makers)). There is a programme of talks by academic historians and authors.

My sincere thanks to Peter Ross and Anne-Marie Nankivell for their hospitality. I’ll explore the possibility of arranging a similar thing for a group of LH Members. Keep an eye on the web-site!

Except where stated, all pictures by Anne-Marie Nankivell. 

guildhall library

guildhall library london

Treats in store

guildhall library london

guildhall library london

guildhall library london

guildhall library london

Pic: M Paterson

Read Full Post »