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This review is a guest post by London Historians Member Hannah Renier. 

London-BridgeDorian Gerhold’s London Bridge and its Houses, 1209-1761 is a handsome illustrated volume based on extraordinary scholarship. An interest in any aspect of London before 1761 will be enriched by this book because the bridge (for almost its entire life the only one) was so intrinsically a part of Londoners’ lives.

You may already know the 1969 scale model of it, a wonderful, but static, exhibit in St Magnus the Martyr Church. Gerhold’s book offers a more dynamic view in which some of the details assumed by historians in 1969 have been revised. Here the bridge, its many inhabitants, and the events that affected it, come alive through time, thanks to diagrams, plans, plates, details from well-known images and imaginative coloured reconstructions.

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Gatefold spread pp 2-3 is a pre-1590 image from Samuel Pepys’s Library.

Peter de Colechurch and Henry Yevele were the first in a long parade of Masters employed to direct works on the bridge throughout its life. Diagrams show us exactly how, in the last decades of the twelfth century, mediaeval Londoners began to construct a bridge 283 metres long over a fierce tidal river – a feat as astonishing as today’s Tideway Tunnel project. Supplied only with manpower and horsepower, picks and shovels, winches and buckets, iron-tipped piles, tons of rubble, stone and timber, and determination, they made a populated landmark that endured, with maintenance and repair, for more than 550 years.

Almost everything on and around London Bridge changed in that time, and Gerhold has had access to the Bridge House and Common Council records among others. Copious details about the buildings, their interiors, the people who lived there and the rentals they paid are available from 1460 until the bridge’s final years, and a less complete record exists back to 1358. Essentially this was a roadway above the water from north to south, supported on 19 brick and stone piers which stood on starlings – these being east-to-west rubble-filled caissons up to fifty feet long, firmly lodged in the riverbed. As first built, it catered for commerce, religion and defence. At the north (City) end there was a convivial open space and plenty of room for upmarket shops, with modest living accommodation above, to line your path as you crossed the Thames. Near the middle stood more shops and a fine large chapel dedicated to St Thomas à Becket. At the south (Southwark) end, from which any threat to the City was likely to come, the shops were cheaper and narrower. Heading north from Southwark you, or your horse and cart, would have to pass under a stone gateway with a portcullis, cross a military ground, and traverse a drawbridge.

With the centuries, much of this changed. The monks of the chapel had been responsible for managing London Bridge when it opened, but they agreed before sixty years had passed to cede control and income from tolls and rents to the committee of Bridge House, an entity of the City of London which owned the Southwark abutment (the wide land-based approach).

During the Reformation, the chapel was destroyed. It was eventually replaced by a large shop, warehouse and accommodation. Stocks and a cage for offenders were installed at the Southwark end. There was a licensed lady apple-seller there in Tudor times: apples for hurling, probably. At the Stone Gate, wrongdoers’ decapitated heads were displayed on poles from 1577 until 1684, says Gerhold, who likes to be accurate (other sources suggest there were heads after that). The timber-framed shops became taller, wider, deeper and more numerous; most were more than four storeys high. Waterwheels were constructed in 1590 next to the north end, to supply piped water to local houses. At the south, waterwheels drove a corn mill as well as a water supply. There were communal latrines at the north and south abutments, although the one on the City side eventually crashed into the river (while in use).

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Representative spreads from this richly-illustrated book.

With time and less civil disorder, the portcullis and the drawbridge became redundant. Commerce took precedence, and more shops were built east and west of the military ground. The road was gradually, and piecemeal, widened, although pinch-points remained. It was no ordinary road, open to the sky along its length; from the thirteenth century for at least four hundred years cross-buildings (oversails) were popular. These were rooms that spanned the entire street from house to opposing house above the traffic.

So that this ‘bridge’ would not thereby become a tunnel over the river, cross-building was permitted only at alternate houses and from the first storey upwards. This left a height clearance of under ten and a half feet – not a lot for a laden cart. From the seventeenth century new crossbuilds had to spring from the second storey. Imagine sleeping high above the Thames with a gale whipping up the current, your house-timbers groaning and your trade sign screeching. People felt safer with an oversail that would peg their vulnerable homes to both sides of the road. For the houses, with their shopfronts, were not built on top of the road – they had only a toehold on it, and their main rooms overhung the river. This was never a cantilever arrangement. Instead they were supported on, and from, the piers by massive timber hammer-beams, or stone arches.

Dorian Gerhold names the traders and makers who lived above their shops at different times, and shows how the wares they sold changed over the centuries from warlike: bows and arrows made on site and sold – to luxury:imported silks and muslins, and books. Very few alehouses were permitted (rowdiness), and pastrycooks were discouraged (fire). But the seventeenth-century bridge’s coffee houses, promising well-informed discussions of culture and politics, became popular with City men.

The shopkeepers and their families had privies, cellars (often inside the piers), counting houses, garrets and ‘water rooms’ supplied with winches and buckets to draw water from the teeming gullets under the arches. Almost all their chimneys, hearths and kitchens were high above the river. Some houses had ‘walking leads’, which this reader imagines as lead paths behind the roof balustrades, perfect for an evening stroll and a view up or down river. For a long time, the ‘House of Many Windows’ straddled the road facing south; a frontage that was almost entirely crown glass must have twinkled magnificently at sunrise and sunset. The drawbridge building, with houses at either side, was eventually replaced by the spectacularly colourful late-Tudor Nonsuch House.

The bridge was threatened throughout its existence by the tidal tumult between its arches, bitter winters with the frozen Thames expanding, and riot and revolt. Also disease: the Black Death depleted it of traders, although those who remained took the opportunity to take on neighbouring empty properties. Fire was the biggest threat of all. The massive Southwark conflagration of 1212/1213 destroyed buildings as far north as the Chapel. Most of the City end burned in 1633. The Great Fire of 1666 rushed down Fish Street Hill and Pepys watched it destroying more bridge buildings at the north end. Afterwards, London Bridge houses were exempted from the new no-timber-building rule, so nobody was surprised when in 1725 there was another big blaze.

London prospered nonetheless, and so did the 500 or so bridge-dwellers. Their tapestries, looking-glasses, tables, pictures and furnishings are documented house by house. This may make the book sound so detail-heavy as to be a mere compendium of lists, which it isn’t ¬– the drier facts and figures are tabled in appendices.

Towards the end (which may have begun with the great overhaul and sloppy rebuild of 1683-96), maintenance began to fail and corners were cut. The enormous timbers that supported the original bridge were perhaps no longer available or too expensive, but somehow regulation was relaxed with predictable results. New, poorly supported houses threatened to topple. At this time, in the early 1700s, bridges with buildings – which in the thirteenth century had been fashionable in northern Europe – were understandably considered rather a nuisance. The commercial world was in a hurry and immigrants from all over the kingdom were pouring into London. Traffic bottlenecks were bad for trade. And nearby bridges finally defeated Bridge House’s monopoly: Westminster in 1750, Blackfriars in 1769, Waterloo in 1815.

George Dance produced an ominous report on the high cost of repairing London Bridge. The City’s solution was house clearance. Despite protests from their inhabitants, the bridge houses were demolished, the piers cut down, an arch removed and the road widened to 45 feet. That happened between 1757 and 1761. Afterwards London Bridge was not itself. It had lost its world-class sparkle in exchange for improvements which were incomplete. It now provided clear passage for carts and carriages, but the remaining arches continued to obstruct river traffic.

Following the British victory at Waterloo, money was found and a wholly new London Bridge commissioned. In the 1820s work began on John Rennie’s sturdy and serviceable design. It was completed, a few pulls of the oars upstream, by 1831. The London Bridge, Old London Bridge which had been opened in 1209 on the site of many previous timber bridges, was demolished. It ‘vanished without leaving any visible trace’. It had been, as this book shows, one of the liveliest parts of London.


London Bridge and its Houses c1209 – 1761 (168pp) by Dorian Gerhold is London Topographical Society Publication No. 182, 2019. It is priced at £21 for LTS members*, £28 for non-members. Plus postage.

* Note that LTS members automatically get one copy of the annual book free of charge as part of their membership.

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This watercolour from 1931 depicts the astonishing building which the Company of Newspaper Makers was hoping to build for its London headquarters. It reminds me a lot of  the Daily Planet building from Superman. Or the apartment block in Ghostbusters. At any rate, the style is firmly anchored in its period.

At 84m it would have been the tallest office block in London, some 30m taller than Charles Holden’s 55 Broadway, completed in 1929 at that time London’s tallest commercial building. St Paul’s, at 111m, remained the tallest overall.

The signature on the image is J J Joass. John James Joass (1868 – 1952) was a Scottish architect practising in London. A close contemporary of Holden’s, his work included Swan & Edgar, Whiteleys and an extension to Chartered Accountants’ Hall in the City.

Very much a latecomer by livery standards, the Newspaper Makers Company was founded in 1931, the same year as this painting. But it only lasted as an independent body for six years when, by Royal Charter, it amalgamated with the Stationers’ Company (1403, Royal Charter 1557, 47th in precedence) in 1937. This must have been something of a come-down for many newspaper makers, considering the company initially rejected the Stationers and Stationers’ Hall as being too small for their purposes,  meetings and banquets. Their launch meeting on 31 December 1931 had been held at the Institute of Journalists and their inaugural banquet was at the Mansion House the following 26 February.

The first question one would rightly ask, is: where in London was this site? At time of writing we don’t know but looking into it! One would imagine on or near Fleet Street. It could be that this proposed livery hall was at that time, simply an aspiration, bearing in mind it was an illustration in what was a launch brochure for the Company which included its constitution.

Had the Newspaper Makers’ fantasy been realised, one can easily picture this skyscraper being a fitting neighbour to old Fleet Street favourites such as the Telegraph Building (1928, now Goldman Sachs) and the Express Building (1932).


Our thanks to the Stationers’ Company for use of this image. 

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We unapologetically re-publish this four year old review of a fifty-three year old book. Originally published in London Historians Members’ newsletter January 2015. By LH Member Simon Fowler.


 

What’s the best guide to London’s buildings?  There’s the superb and very comprehensive English Heritage’s Survey of London and, of course, the appropriate volumes of Pevsner. But might I suggest a 50-year old book by Ian Nairn? First published in 1966, Nairn’s London has recently been republished as a Penguin Classic after many years out of print. And not a moment too soon!

nairn01Ian Nairn (1930-1983) was perhaps Britain’s greatest architectural critic.  According to Owen Hatherley he was “Arguably the finest architectural writer of the Twentieth Century…vivid, sensual descriptions of buildings, a way of writing about architecture that I’d never imagined possible before.” Today he is remembered for several series of iconic TV programmes in the late 1960s and early 1970s: many of which are now available on BBC iPlayer.

But his greatest work is Nairn’s London. In it he describes nearly five hundred buildings, some famous, many obscure and some plain perverse. In the preface Nairn writes that:
This guide is simply my personal list of the best things in London.  I have all the time tried to be rigorous – not any old Wren church or view or pub – and I have tried to get behind conventional aesthetics to an in internal reality of which beauty is only facet. What I am after is character, or personality, or essence.

During the mid and late 1960s there was an explosion of books about the city, many capitalising on the metropolis’s brief notoriety as ‘Swinging London’.  There was even a Good Loo guide. But whereas these guides are almost without exception dated and hackneyed, Nairn’s London remains as fresh as the day it was published. His descriptions match exactly the building, or bring some aspect to the reader’s attention that they might otherwise have overlooked. Best of all he makes you want to go there. Take 12 Langford Place in London NW8 for example:
Sheer horror: a Francis Bacon shriek in these affluent, uncomplicated surroundings at the end of Abbey Road.  It looks like a normal St John’s Wood villa pickled in embalming fluid by some mad doctor. Two very pinched gables and a bay window like the carapace of a science fiction insect. There is something far beyond architectural wildness here, even Victorian wildness. The design radiates malevolence as unforgettably as Iago.

Ian Nairn is remembered for his opposition to modern architecture.  In a February 1966 article for the Observer titled ‘Stop the architects now’ he asserted that: ‘The outstanding and appalling fact about modern British architecture is that it is just not good enough. It is not standing up to use or climate, either in single buildings or the whole environment.”

Yet Nairn’s London is full of entries praising contemporary buildings. Indeed this is one of the book’s great strengths: separating it from other such guides.  Of two blocks of council flats – Waltham House and Dale House in Boundary Road – which were designed by Armstrong and MacManus and built by St Marylebone council in the 1950s, he says:
Plain dealing: an outstanding and far too rare example in London of what honest design and professional self-respect can do with the leanest of programmes.  Just four-storey flats and maisonettes, respectively: just yellow brick, just long-stepped terraces with some planting in front. But all the simple things have been cared for, not fussed over and not made into ‘features’, but treated as straightforwardly as the nineteenth century dock and warehouse men would have. 

Inevitably, some of the buildings here have disappeared.  It would have been nice for example to have walked past Sir Charles’ Reilly’s Lodge Road Power Station of 1904 (and demolished in 1973) which had “all the ornament florid and curling over, everything saying this is a bloody great shed.”

Nairn was a great pubman. Indeed beer destroyed him in the end: he died as a chronic alcoholic of cirrhosis of the liver in 1983. It is perhaps little wonder that there is a postscript on London beer, which is one of the few entries that has dated.  The capital’s pubs are now awash with good beer: something he would have appreciated.

Some of the best entries describe pubs – there are thirty entries – such as the long gone Ward’s Irish House, near Piccadilly Circus: “It is not trying to be Irish, it just is.  A big bare room with a central zinc-topped bar, no concessions to comfort, but on the other hand some of the best draught Guinness in London.” Or the Red Lion in Duke of York Street close by, which is happily still with us much as the author would have known it: “If I could keep only one pub out of the whole London galaxy, this would be it…It is a place to walk out of ramrod-straight, reinforced by those proud sparkling arabesques.”

Ian Nairn drinking in a pub

It has to be stressed that this is a very personal guide.  The original blurb on the back claimed that: “there has never been a guide like it…[it is] an intensely subjective search for the good things in London.” There are many omissions – the area (and pubs) around Little Venice for example. But it matters not one jot.  As the great modern architectural critic Jonathan Meades notes: “Nairn’s London belongs to no genre except its own, it is of a school of one. The masterwork.”

If you live in London or are fascinated by the capital’s history and buildings then this guide should be on your shelves.

Nairn’s London has been republished by Penguin Books, price £9.99 (ISBN 978-0-141-39615-6).  All the original rather grainy photographs have been included and there is an excellent afterword by the late celebrated architectural critic Gavin Stamp.


See also: Nairn.


For the past three years London Historians has marked Ian Nairn’s birthday (24/08/1930) with a pub crawl through establishments mentioned in the book. This year it’s Saturday 24 August. Watch out for more news on this.  

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Very recently this 20 feet wide panorama by the French artist Pierre Prévost (1764 – 1823) has been put on display at the Museum of London. Painted around 1815 just after the Battle of Waterloo, it shows a 360 degree view of London as observed from the tower of St Margaret’s church, Westminster. It was done in watercolour on paper and is glued onto a canvas backing. It was a preparatory piece for a much larger monumental panorama, now lost.

The museum acquired the painting for £200,000 at auction held at Sotheby’s last July.

On Thursday last week I went to see it for the first time. It is lovely. It is not the museum’s fault that the digital versions released since the acquisition cannot possibly do justice to the original version. The colour is far more vibrant for a start. But there is great pleasure to be had zooming in on the detail, which I shall try and demonstrate here. Clearly the artist had a great deal of fun with it.

But also, just to note, for the first time I now properly understand the topography of the old Palace of Westminster: how it stood in relation to the river, Westminster Hall, Old and New Palace yard, and so on.

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Old Palace of Westminster, the centrepiece of the painting.

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New Palace Yard and Westminster Bridge.

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New Palace Yard looking further east to the new Strand Bridge, later Waterloo Bridge, and St Paul’s beyond.

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Detail. Carriages in New Palace Yard.

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Detail. New Palace Yard. A small crowd listening to a speaker, perhaps, or street vendor or performing animal.

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Detail. Two men having a punch-up! Onlookers.

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Detail. Charming depiction of a collier and his cart.

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Middlesex Guildhall, now the Supreme Court.

My only quibble with the display is that the three glass covers of the display cabinet are joined by strips of metal which are actually rather intrusive. I hope these can be improved upon somehow.

That aside, the panorama is a wonder, giving a superb depiction – albeit idealised – of London two hundred years ago. Do go and see it!


More about this at the Museum of London. 

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London Railway Stations by Chris Heather. A guest review by Laurence Scales @LWalksLondon.

rsA softly spoken subtext of this book is to show off some of the holdings of The National Archives on the theme of London’s thirteen mainline railway passenger termini and their associated hotels. So, importantly, for most of London’s wayside railway stations you will look here in vain. The history of each terminus is surveyed in order of opening. Did you know that London Bridge was the first in 1836? Of course you did.
The fact that ‘The British Government saw no need to provide an overall plan for the railway network’ will strike a chord with every experienced traveler, but it makes for a rich history and diversity in infrastructure. The author continues. ‘Each [terminus] has its own personality, and its own charm and idiosyncrasies.’ You can explore some of them in these pages.

This is not a book that is intended to be full of pictures of trains, although there are many. Some of the termini are better served by photographs than others, Liverpool Street and Marylebone being particularly light on images. There are maps, posters, letters, illustrations and advertisements here, some of which are in colour, and many are pleasingly unusual.

I regard myself as a softcore railway enthusiast. You folk who just think that trains are sometimes useful for taking you from Alvechurch to Barnstable probably have no conception what that means! The hardcore, for example, would probably want to know how the Great Western Railway’s points and crossing work was enhanced over the years since Paddington Station’s temporary predecessor was opened in 1838. What this book does, and it suits me, is to explain that the food court at Paddington, mysteriously known as The Lawn, was formerly a plot for the cultivation of rhubarb and that flowers might be picked there, though that would likely land you in trouble with the railway constabulary. If you want to know about the design of trackwork, then I am sure that there is a hardcore tome out there, not this one, that will enlighten you.

This book could well be enjoyed by the railway history completist, but would principally inform and entertain the curious Londoner who either commutes through one of these termini, or occasionally exits London for diverse points of the compass through one of its grand Victorian gateways. It aims to be interesting not encyclopaedic. Chris Heather cherry-picks historical incidents to feature. He provides a brief history of each main line and he (thankfully) highlights human interest rather than, say, the shareholdings of the principal proprietors (hardcore). George Landmann engineered the 878 brick arches which formed the London and Greenwich Railway. But whom did he buy for six bottles of rum? Enquire within.


London Railway Stations by Chris Heather (The National Archives), 160 pages, hardback, illustrated, with index.

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The King’s Cross Story by Peter Darley. Review by LH Member Laurence Scales

71DGRy7bKQLI come to know the King’s Cross area from association with the London Canal Museum. Visits to the railway lands on foot were long confined to a bend of the Regent’s Canal. Cement dust in the eye and sounds of pile drivers were all the senses could grasp of the transformation of a vast region beyond blank hoardings. Old maps told of expanses of urban land lost to long dead trade.

The wilderness of gas holders and derelict coal yards between King’s Cross station and St Pancras is yet something to be missed. It is now a destination for cultural happenings other than spraying tags on walls and fly tipping. There is a new architectural showpiece in the repurposed coal drops and a north south axis for flaneurs. So, a new book about this area is timely. Peter Darley, known from the Camden Railway Heritage Trust and his writing about the equivalent hinterland north of Euston, has authored a very attractive one, packed with fascinating photographs and local artists’ evocative renditions of brick, bent iron and weeds. There are many old maps too but I found myself seeking clearer versions on-line.

E1 Gasholder Triplets, 1997, taken from Goods Way

The Gasholder Triplets in 1997, taken from Goods Way, Angela Inglis (courtesy of Rob Inglis).

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The York Road entrance to the goods yard, c1900” (courtesy of Pope/Parkhouse archive).

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Granary Warehouse showing two barges entering the Granary via the central tunnels, and horse-drawn carts lined up against the southern wall to receive sacks of grain via chutes, ILN 28 May 1853 (courtesy of Canal and River Trust).

This is really several different books in one. First, the railway station with attendant sheds was a world of its own, with only whistles and smoke escaping. Darley provides plenty of detail for the railway enthusiast. Then there is another world of the carmen and horses swarming around the goods yard at all hours with their coal and grain sacks, herring and potatoes. Included is an account of Jack Atcheler’s knacker’s yard adjacent. The industrial archaeologist is shown horse ramps and hydraulic capstans. As you grab sushi from Waitrose you can learn what manner of trade you might have encountered under that awning years before.

There too are the lost years of planning wrangles, the nature park and Google. This is a rich record and souvenir, not a flowing narrative. In the flip of a page we turn from Streetwalkers to Freightliner Operations. There is so much going on in the area, part now of the Knowledge Quarter, that it cannot all find a home even in Darley’s comprehensive book. I missed mention of the skip garden, inspiring community project and welcome antidote to Prêt partout.

Next time I am in the British Library reading room I shall reflect on the fact that I sit on old Somers Town goods yard. And what may take me to ferret in the library is Darley’s intriguing reference to the unloading in 1937, in another goods yard, of a putrefied whale.


The King’s Cross Story by Peter Darley, Softback, 215 pages, lavishly illustrated, The History Press, £20.

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A guest review by LH member Laurence Scales, of the new Channel 5 series. 

Feeling a bit lost at present on Saturday nights without a Swedish murder to mull over I turned to Channel 5 and its series, ‘How the Victorians Built Britain’, fronted by Michael Buerk The viewer is invited to bask in the glow of beautifully restored steam engines, magnificent dams and tiled Turkish baths. Land of Hope and Glory is playing in my head even if you cannot hear it. Yes, Victorians were wonderful in many ways. We should all know, of course, that they were frightful in many others. Victorian novelist Thomas Hughes invented ‘rose tinted spectacles’ and we are definitely wearing them here.

It may be that a few more things have been restored to their original glory today, but I doubt that otherwise this series would stand much comparison with a repeat of Adam Hart-Davis’s ‘What the Victorians Did for Us’ on the BBC in 2000. (His book is still obtainable.) This Channel 5 series is too sugary and ought to be paired with the health warning of another BBC series, from 2013, ‘Hidden Killers: The Victorian Home’, not just because it adds healthy roughage to the factual diet but because it gives perspective: mistakes were made in the process of building our world.

I knew that I would find myself shouting at the screen. But I did not shout myself hoarse. Michael Buerk is filmed interviewing bona fide experts but these wise heads are topped and tailed with some careless talk. It was said last week that Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers swept all that human ordure away to be treated in east London. Bazalgette did nothing of the sort. He just poured the noxious waste into the river there. He could do nothing else until treatment was invented. This week it was power stations. The first large scale power station was in Newcastle, apparently. (And they did not mean William Armstrong’s personal hydro electric generator at Cragside.) I wondered where they got that idea from. I checked. It turns out that Newcastle had the first power station with turbo alternators. You can easily change a fact into fallacy by losing a few words at the end of a sentence!

The production is easy on the eye and might serve to tempt people out to visit their local heritage and find out more. (As a part of that local heritage, I hope so!) Whatever the evils of the more sanctimonious or avaricious Victorians, the great thing is that their cavernous cisterns, mighty pistons and vaulting viaducts now belong to all of us, whether we were born in Somalia or Stevenage.

Laurence Scales

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