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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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Review: Faber & Faber: The Untold Story by Toby Faber. This review is a guest post by London Historians member Sally-Anne Thomas. 

ffThis is a wonderful book for anyone interested in history, literature, poetry or publishing. It’s also the result of meticulous record keeping, and told in a series of letters, minutes, memoirs and memos, with the occasional explanatory intervention by the author.

It begins in London with an account of the early life of the firm’s founder, Sir Geoffrey Faber, the writer’s grandfather. He made an uncertain start in terms of a career. Born in 1889, he spent the First World War on the Western Front, wrote some critically acclaimed poetry, was elected as a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, and eventually became a director of Strong and Co., a beer manufacturing company in Hampshire. But he had little talent for brewing, and soon lost his job.

By this time he was living in London, married, and with a growing family. He was writing unsuccessful plays and a novel, but was rescued by another fellow of All Souls, Maurice Dwyer who, with his wife Alaina, had an interest in a publishing company called ‘The Scientific Press’, whose primary title was The Nursing Mirror.
In 1924, Geoffrey was installed as Chairman and Managing Director of the firm. The Nursing Mirror was sold.

The early part of the book marks Geoffrey’s battles to move the firm towards a literary path. One of his first appointments was that of the poet, T. S. Eliot, as a literary adviser. Eliot, as you might expect, was good on poetry, but has the distinction of rejecting an early version of George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris and Animal Farm.

There are constant battles within the firm, involving Geoffrey and later his son Tom, an academic and physicist who rescued the company from severe financial problems in the 1970s.

A series of irate letters cover rows between members of the family and with the directors, disagreements with authors, and a series of other problems.

However, this small firm managed to survive the Great Depression, paper shortages in the Second World War, and numerous financial crises subsequently. It remains one of the best-known and respected publishing houses in the world.

If I were to list all the authors who have been published by Faber, I would far exceed the word allowance for this review. But to name just a few, we have Eliot, of course, Siegfried Sassoon, Ezra Pound,. William Golding, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Harold Pinter, Lawrence Durrell, P. D. James, Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, Kazuo Ishiguro, Peter Carey and Orhan Pamuk. The Faber Finds imprint, established in 2008, makes copyrighted out-of-print books re-available, using print-on-demand technology and includes works by John Betjeman, Angus Wilson, A. J. P. Taylor, H. G Wells, Joyce Cary, Nina Bawden, Jean Genet, Lousis MacNeice, F. R. Leavis, Jacob Bronowski, Jan Morris and Brian Aldiss.

The detailed story ends in 1989. But Toby Faber – who no longer has a hands-on responsibility for the company – makes it clear that much is still to come.

The structure of the book is interesting. Since it involves very little narrative, just the use of historical letters and memos, it can seem a little staccato. But because it’s been expertly collated, the volume flows. It is raw history, fascinating and hugely entertaining. And running through the book is a sense of fun, of how exhilarating and challenging the company was and is.

Faber and Faber marches on. I’m sure there will be another volume soon, followed by one on the two-hundredth anniversary in 2129.


Faber & Faber, The Untold Story (426pp) by Toby Faber was published in May 2019 by Faber & Faber with a cover price of £20.

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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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Review: Trico: A Victory to Remember. The 1976 Equal Pay Strike at Trico Folberth, Brentford. by Sally Groves and Vernon Merritt.


9781912064878_200x_trico-a-victory-to-rememberThe current dispute of women council workers in Glasgow over equal pay reminds us of the long road travelled since the famous Match Girls’ Strike in East London in 1888. Just as famous is that of the women Ford upholstery workers of Dagenham whose successful dispute of 1968 got made into a movie years later.

Less well-known but no less hard-fought was the strike of women workers at Trico Folberth (will refer as ‘Trico’ from here) of Brentford in 1976. It lasted 21 gruelling weeks.

This book tells that story.

Trico was – and is – an American manufacturer of car accessories, primarily windscreen wiper blades and the associated water pumps and motors. Their UK-based factory which supported car manufacturing for both domestic and international production was based on the Great West Road at the eastern end of Brentford’s ‘Golden Mile’. Today the enormous GSK complex dominates its former site.

The enabling legislation which led to this dispute was Barbara Castle’s Equal Pay Act, 1970 which came into effect at the end of 1975. Put simply, it legislated that men and women should receive identical pay for the same work. While many companies complied with the legislation, many did not. The Act, as Sally Groves points out, was riddled with loopholes which company lawyers throughout the country skipped through with consummate ease. Trico fell into the category of company which thought all of this could be ignored by dint of its male and female staff working almost completely apart.

Trico was a 24 hour manufacturing operation where men worked night shifts and women through the day. Never the twain would meet until in 1976 the night shift was cancelled, some men laid off with the survivors joining the women on the day shift. With this the pay discrepancy between the sexes soon became apparent, something that took the women workers completely by surprise. The consequences soon took the management by surprise too.

Negotiations between union representatives and management took place but led nowhere. On the afternoon of 24 May, at a union mass meeting in a nearby park, approximately 400 women production workers voted for all-out strike. They picked up their belongings from the factory and went home. Virtually none had ever struck before and most of them expected to be back at work in a matter of days.

P-009 John Bracher addressing strikers in Boston Manor Park Eric Fudge standing middle background with bucket. Morning Star, courtesy Bishopsgate Institute_500

Strike meeting in Boston Manor Park. Courtesy Bishopsgate Institute.

This is where the real story begins. It should be noted that about a  hundred men also came out in support. The remainder – including some husbands and boyfriends – stayed on, keeping the factory ticking over. It was to be the single women in particular who felt the most hardship in the following months.

From here we find out how these green strikers grew in determination and experience. Author Sally Groves, who became the workers’ press officer, admits they were virtually clueless at the beginning. But support for them grew in the trade union movement, among local Brentfordians and others, and their cause soon spread from the local press to national media.

P-012 Sally Groves' banner on Trico railings. Morning Star, courtesy Bishopsgate Institute_500

Sally Groves’s homemade banner on the railings at Trico, Morning Star. Courtesy Bishopsgate Institute.

P-030 Trico strikers lobbying TUC Brighton, Source unknown_500

Trico strikers lobbying TUC Brighton. Source unknown.

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On the march.

At the centre of this story, though, is friendship and solidarity. Previously black and white and brown workers didn’t really hang out together: now they did – lifelong friendships were forged. There are dozens of vignettes, heartwarming, sometimes sad but often amusing which, added together, led to final victory on 15 October when the strikers voted to return to work after Trico management agreed to all demands.

Joan Bakewell postcard 1st side without address_500px

Kind permission of Joan Bakewell, DBE.

The reasons this book succeeds so wonderfully are many. First, I believe, is that while both authors were directly involved in the strike, their contributions are some forty years apart. Vernon Merritt’s original manuscript had lain untouched since when he left it in the dispute’s immediate aftermath. By contrast, Sally Groves has completed the job very recently. This has given the whole a very inperceptible yet balanced feel. Second, there are plenty of verbatim accounts of those directly involved which are separated from the main narrative in grey boxes so the work is rich in reportage, reminiscing, anecdote: those who were around in the 1970s will experience a strong tinge of nostalgia, I feel, whatever their politics. Third, dozens of wonderful photographs, cartoons, ephemera. Finally, this book is excellently designed, footnoted and indexed as every good history book should be.

Quite apart from being a wonderful read, I believe this to be an important work in the history of equality and industrial relations in this country. I commend it to you.


Trico – A Victory to Remember (238pp) by Sally Groves and Vernon Merritt was published in June by Lawrence and Wishart in association with Unite trade union. Erroneously listed as paperback by Amazon at time of writing.

A signed copy of the book will be the November book prize in London Historians Members’ Newsletter.

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A guest post by Stephen Halliday, first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter April 2014. .

Borough Market, in Southwark, has a claim to be the oldest of all the capital’s markets still trading on its original site and celebrating its 1,000th anniversary in 2014. By 1276, according to a document of that date, it had become a nuisance by spreading to the south side of London Bridge. The bridge had been rebuilt in stone 100 years earlier by Henry II and was itself a severe bottleneck, being congested by over one hundred shops and houses whose construction on the bridge had helped pay for it. The bridge also provided a home for London’s first public latrine. The proximity of the market accentuated the problem, causing a serious impediment to the City’s commercial life. Almost three centuries passed until the reign of Edward VI (1547-53) when the young king granted a charter in 1550 vesting the market rights in the Lord Mayor and citizens of the City who were thereby able to regulate the management of the market and the space which it occupied. The market sold grain, fruit, vegetables, fish and some livestock. In 1671 a new charter from Charles II fixed the limits of the market as extending from the southern end of London Bridge to St Margaret’s Hill which lay close to the present site of Guy’s Hospital and to the former home, in today’s Talbot yard, of the Tabard Inn from which Chaucer’s pilgrims set out for Canterbury.

Modern Borough Market

Modern Borough Market

By 1754 the continued chaos caused by traffic to and from the market prompted the City Corporation to petition Parliament to relieve them of the responsibility of the market whose growth, in response to the increasing population of London, had proved to be unmanageable. The Borough Market Act of 1756, therefore abolished the ancient market but gave the parish of St Saviour’s Southwark (later Southwark Cathedral) the right to set up a market on a new site. A group of Southwark residents raised six thousand pounds to purchase land known as The Triangle, south of St Saviour’s which remains at the heart of the market. The present buildings were designed in 1851 by Henry Rose who had earlier redesigned the nave of St Saviour’s with further work in 1863-4 by Edward Habershon. Both architects were chiefly associated with ecclesiastical designs which no doubt accounts for the “Gothic” character of some of the market buildings, particularly the elaborate wrought ironwork. An Art Deco entrance from Southwark Street was added in 1932 and in 2004 the south portico from Covent Garden’s Floral Hall was installed when the Royal Opera House was redeveloped. By 1851 Borough Market had become one of London’s most important. Its position close to the wharves of the Pool of London made it readily accessible to ships unloading their cargoes and it was well placed to supply retail and catering outlets both in the City and in the rapidly developing suburbs of South London.

Flying leasehold
The market is situated beneath a railway junction whose tracks are the most heavily used in Great Britain, where trains from south of London, having passed through London Bridge station, proceed to Cannon Street, Blackfriars, Waterloo East and Charing Cross. This was a mixed blessing. On the one hand access to the railway meant that market traders had additional sources of produce from Kent and Sussex but on the other hand the market did not wish to give up any of its precious land for railway tracks and was prevented from doing so by the terms of the 1756 Borough Market Act. An arrangement was made whereby the railway companies were granted a flying leasehold enabling them, from 1860, to build a viaduct carrying the permanent way while the market continued to trade beneath the arches. This arrangement continues and every time the railway viaduct is widened compensation is paid to the market trustees who number sixteen and who have to live in the area. An excellent view of the market can be had from the viewing platform of The Shard, Europe’s tallest building.

Over one hundred stallholders continue to sell fruit and vegetables, a Blue Plaque recording that theirs is the site of London’s oldest market. To these have been added meat, fish and cheese and gourmet outlets such as De Gustibus breads, Furness Fish and Game and the Brindisa tapas restaurant amongst many others. The wholesale market operates on weekdays from 2 am to 8 am and the retail market on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 9 to 5, after which the area’s restaurants and cafes continue to trade. The market has its own inspectorate which operates in partnership with Southwark’s trading standards department.

The Area
In Shakespeare’s time Southwark was home to many theatres which were regarded as too disreputable to be accommodated within the City itself across London Bridge and the area was run down until the second half of the twentieth century. It then underwent a major revival with the South Bank developments, beginning with the Royal Festival Hall and the National Theatre. These were followed by the opening, in 1995 of Shakespeare’s Globe, within walking distance of the market. The original Globe was destroyed by fire in 1613 and the present theatre, Inspired by the American actor Sam Wanamaker, is as faithful a reproduction of the original as fire regulations will permit. Three years later the Tate Modern art gallery was opened in the converted Bankside power station so the South Bank, from being a poor relation of the City, has become its cultural neighbour and many visitors combine a visit to the bustling Borough Market with a visit to the Globe or Tate Modern followed by a meal at one of the many restaurants which are found in the vicinity of the market.

Shakespeare's Globe.

Shakespeare’s Globe.

The market has its own website with an interactive map at boroughmarket.org.uk. with an entry for its magazine Market Life which is produced every six weeks and can be obtained in the market or at London Bridge station.


Stephen Halliday is the author of numerous books on the history of London, beginning with The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Metropolitan Metropolis (History Press, 1999) and including London’s Markets : from Smithfield to Portobelllo Road (History Press, 2014). He lives in Cambridge and contributes articles and reviews regularly to national newspapers and magazines
.

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A guest post by London Historians member Roger Williams.

Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 08.50.45Regulars at The London Historians’ monthly meetups in the Hoop and Grapes will be familiar with Shepherd Neame’s Whitstable Bay. The beer is dispensed from the barrel, and the label on the pump handle describes it as a being from ‘The Faversham Steam Brewery’. This name was first used to mark the acquisition in the late 18th century of a five-horse-power steam engine, which made the brewery one of the first outside London to join the Industrial Revolution. The engine was supplied by the Birmingham pioneering manufactory of Matthew Boulton and James Watt whose portraits are on the £50 note. This is the last note to be transformed into polymer, and there is even speculation that this note is so unused — or, perhaps, only used for drug dealing and money laundering — that it may disappear altogether.  It would be a shame if Boulton and Watt slipped back into history, for these are the men who drove the Industrial Revolution and brought Britain incredible wealth.

Their headquarters was the Soho Manufactory in Birmingham, in a district named, like London’s West End quarter, after a hunting cry. But you don’t have to go that far to appreciate their work, and the first stop must be the London Museum of Water and Steam at Kew, where one glance at the monster Boulton & Watt beam engine gives an immediate sense of what giants of industry these two men were.  Steam engines were designed initially by the likes of Newcomen and Trevithick to pump water from Cornish mines. By 1800 80 percent of the world’s coal was mined in Britain,  and today 75 per cent of electricity in use in Britain is provided by steam. Built in 1820, the year after Watt’s death, for the waterworks at Chelsea, this machine was moved to Kew in 1840. It is the oldest known working waterworks beam engine in the world, and it still gets fired up. Watching the leviathan 15-ton beam ease into graceful action is a vision of the hand-wrought world of man at its height.

WattWorkshop_500
James Watt’s workshop at his house in Handsworth, near Soho, was a popular place to visit during and even after his lifetime. In 1924, more than a century after his death, his house was due to be demolished so  the Science Museum organised the transplantation of the workshop to South Kensington.  It is still there, behind glass, a glorified shed, which has the oldest circular saw in the world, musical instruments and devices to copy sculpture, early 3D printing machines, which occupied Watt in the last years of his life.
The Science Museum’s Engine Hall also preserves Old Bess, one of the world’s oldest surviving beam engines, built in 1777 and used at the Soho manufactory. Buyers might be shown around Old Bess and could purchase the parts and assemble their machines for themselves in situ, with the help of a manual. David & Charles published a reprint some time ago, and it included the use of olive or ‘Spanish’ oil for lubrication. Soho engineers were sometimes sent out to help build or mend machines. It was this idea that gave me the idea to write Burning Barcelona, an historical novel based on solid fact, that imagined an engine erector installing the first steam engine in Spain for Josep Bonaplata’s textile mill in Barcelona, only for it to be attacked by the mob.

As a result of the novel, I gave a paper at Birmingham University in 2009 at the Matthew Boulton Bicentenary Conference*, which helped to bring the coin and ‘toy’ manufacturer (at his own expense he gave every man serving at Trafalgar a medal) into modern consciousness. I was subsequently invited to Westminster Abbey when a memorial to Boulton ‘Pioneer of the Industrial Revolution’ was installed in the floor of St Paul’s chapel.

Fire_at_Albion_Mill_-_Microcosm_of_London_(1808-1811),_35_-_BL
Boulton and Watt built the giant Albion flour mills by Blackfriars bridge, which spectacularly burnt down in 1791, five years after it was installed, The Whitbread brewery in Chiswell Street near the Barbican, also had one of Watt’s first rotative steam engines, built in around the same year, which operated for more than a century. The brewery closed in 1976 and has become a Grade II listed venue with a James Watt Room, while the engine, transported to The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, is still going strong.

James Watt spent much of his life fighting copyright infringements. In London one of his biggest rivals was Henry Maudslay, who built the first beam engine for the Kew Bridge works in 1838. The company’s main erecting shop was in Lambeth where it ran a training school for a whole generation of engineers. Maudslay was a pioneer of machine tool technology, and he specialised in marine engines, providing the power for Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, launched at Millwall in 1854.

If the £50 note does get issued in polymer form, perhaps Henry Maudslay could take the place of Boulton & Watt.
———————-

London Museum of Water & Steam, Kew, www.waterandsteam.org.uk

* Matthew Boulton & James Watt: Empowering the World, paper from the Bicentenary Conference, can be seen on https://boultonwattpaper.blogspot.co.uk
Burning Barcelona on Amazon: https://goo.gl/5jQ2dR


London Historian member Roger Williams is a London-born journalist and former travel guide editor. His fiction is based on historical events that have caught his imagination (Burning Barcelona, Lunch With Elizabeth David, Hotel Bristol Stories). A tourist at home, he is constantly drawn to the Thames, and his books on London include Whitebait and the Thames Fisheries, The Temples of London, Father Thames and London’s Lost Global Giant – in search of the East India Company. Other London books are The Royal Albert Hall: a masterpiece for the 21st century, London Top 10, The Most Amazing Places to Visit in London and Royal London.

 

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This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from June 2017. 
by Rob Smith. 

explosion at silverown police news April 1880

Police News Illustrated 24th April 1880

January this year marked the hundredth anniversary of the explosion at the Brunner Mond factory in Silvertown, one of London’s most devastating disasters. The explosion at the plant, where TNT was being made for the British war effort, killed 73 people and injured more than 500, flattening nearby homes and factories. The explosion led to a rethink about locating dangerous manufacturing plants close to residential areas; a memorial to the explosion has recently been relocated in a new housing development on the site. The disaster has become an important part of East London history. However, the 1917 Silvertown Explosion reprised another event from 1880 at a factory just next door. Unfortunately, industrial accidents in this part of London were depressingly common.

The 1880 explosion took place at a creosote plant owned by Burt, Boulton and Haywood. The company had been set up by two railway engineers H P Burt and S B Boulton with the idea of producing a chemical preservative that could make railway sleepers last longer. Coal Tar creosote had been patented in 1838 by London-based inventor John Bethell. Burt and Boulton set up their works in what was at that time known as Lands End – the strip of industries set up between the Thames and the Plaistow Marshes. This was a desolate location at the time, served by a railway built by George Parker Bidder to connect Kent with the City of London via a passenger ferry at Woolwich – a railway known as “Bidder’s Folly” so unlikely did it seem to succeed. Bidder had the last laugh though, when investors were looking to build the vast Royal Victoria Dock, they had to take him on as a partner as his railway owned the land in the area. When the dock opened in 1855 Burt and Boulton’s factory was in a prime location – able to bring in timber by ship and with the raw materials for making creosote being brought by rail as the by products of London’s many gas works. Soon the plant was busy creosoting tens of thousands of railway sleepers for India’s growing railway network. This unglamorous factory played a small but vital part in making rule of the British Empire possible.

The area now known as Silvertown grew up as housing for workers at Samuel Silver’s rubber and gutta percha works, where the coating which made Transatlantic telegraph cables possible was made. By 1880 the area was home to a sizeable population with a school and a rather fetching church built by S S Teulon. Dangerous industries were no longer on an isolated part of the Thames but in the midst of workers housing

Monday 12th April 1880 had started as an ordinary day at Burt, Boulton and Hayward, with the workforce of three or four hundred boys producing barrels of creosote, as well as by-products like insecticides and sulphuric acid, which went on to become fertilizer. The factory, at a location called Prince Regent’s Wharf, was constructed around a yard which at its centre had a group of four stills containing 2500 gallons of tar each. Two workers oversaw the stills which were heated to separate naptha and creosote from the coal tar. At around 2pm a worker in the yard saw a blue flame erupt from a manhole at the top of the still. A man attempted to pour sand on the flame and shortly afterwards another worker called Benjamin Price attempted to use a portable fire appliance on the blaze. Before Price could do anything, a huge explosion ripped through the still, and the lid went flying into the air, despite weighing several tons. Witnesses say the men on the lid of the still were blown high in the air, and that the still lid rose up like a hot air balloon. Workers in the yard ran in panic as they were showered by burning tar, falling bricks and twisted metal. Two men panicked and ran to hide in a building filled with sulphuric acid fumes, dying instantly. Another still had cracked in the blast and there were fears that it would explode too, while a 50-tonne water tank was knocked over causing more destruction. Barrels of creosote caught fire, setting fire to adjacent buildings. The blast had also damaged ships in the neighbouring Royal Victoria Dock. Terrified horses bolted through the streets of Silvertown

Twenty-five fire engines raced to the scene. It was to their credit that the blaze was brought under control in three hours but not without further problems. A horse pulling the Leyton fire engine panicked and crashed into a lamppost – injuring the crew and killing the horse. The next day the grim task of identifying the dead began. The explosion had been so huge it was uncertain of the death toll. Body parts were put on display at the nearby Graving Dock Tavern while family members filed past in the hope of identifying some of them. One man was identified by his wife recognising his whiskers. In all, eleven men were found to have died in the blast. The sad funeral took place on the Sunday, the victims’ families all agreed that the funerals should be held together and a grim but stately procession of 250 people from the local community followed the eleven hearses that had been paid for by the factory owner.

An inquiry into the accident began shortly afterwards. It was found that the “worm” part of the still that allowed pressure to be released had become blocked. This was quite common in the factory the inquiry was told, but this time the worker in charge had not noticed. A verdict of Accidental death was given in the inquiry, which was over in a day. This infuriated some people, including the press. It was like having a kettle being boiled with the spout blocked and the lid bolted down, claimed the London Evening Standard – any schoolboy could see that this was dangerous. A simple safety valve could have prevented the accident. Why had there not been stricter regulations on the plant, under the 1875 Explosives Act? The factory owners said that it did not apply as tar was not explosive. Eventually the factory was rebuilt and creosote produced there until the 1960’s. There is no memorial to the explosion, but the site is now occupied by the rather lovely Thames Barrier Park.

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Thames Barrier Park – on the site of the 1880 explosion at Burt, Boulton and Hayward.

This was far from the end of the industrial accidents in Silvertown. In 1886, fire broke out at a guano storage works; in 1887, a huge fire starts in an oil storage facility; in 1897, a worker at the Silver factory was killed in an explosion; and in 1899 the Keiller jam factory was destroyed in a gas explosion. The Brunner Mond explosion needs to be seen in that context: the largest incident but not an unusual one.

London’s industry during the Victorian period made a huge impact on the world, something it rarely gets credit for. However, with every great innovation there are dangers and learning to minimise the risks in industrial production was an important breakthrough in itself. We often talk of “health and safety gone mad” but the Silvertown Explosion is an example of what life was like for workers without the protection of health and safety rules.


Rob Smith
Rob Smith is a guide with Footprints of London. You can find out more about his industrial-related walks at their website.

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