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Review: Bollardology by Dr Cathy Ross.

bollardology coverBollardology: a fun title for a fun book, evoking as it does (for me) the wonderful Maureen Lipman’s character of old, Beattie. (“an -ology!” etc.). Of course, it’s about far more than simply fun: it’s deeply interesting and no less deeply researched. A ‘lockdown book’, as the author freely admits, clearly, she thoroughly enjoyed writing it: that shines through.

The book is divided into three main chapters plus a sort of visual index which is also listed as a chapter. The first includes the author’s introduction about how this work came into being, then discusses the very idea of these characters which live among the denizens of the Square Mile, barely noticed, yet everywhere silent sentinels (literally their role in recent decades, as covered later). Dr Ross suggests that bollards are almost a species in their own right along with their human neighbours. Their  variety is mind-boggling – there are forty listed in the photographic index mentioned above.

Dr Cathy Ross – erstwhile Director of Collections an the Museum of London – addresses the word ‘bollard’ and how difficult it is to pin down etymologically. It only came into fairly common use from 1900, having previously been referred to simply as ‘posts’, both officially and by writers as prominent as Dr Johnson. Early on and through a large part of the 19th Century, they were fashioned from wood. None has survived and therefore the evidence for what they looked like is almost exclusively from old paintings and drawings by Hogarth and many others.

Chapter 2 is a narrative history of the bollard on the streets of the Square Mile. The old wooden posts were common enough from after the Great Fire. The growth in their number coincided unsurprisingly with the explosive six-fold expansion of London’s population in the 19th Century and concomitant growth in traffic: streets became hazardous (Did you know that Keep Left didn’t become law until the 20th Century? The book is littered with gems like this). So bollards began to be sited in the middle of the carriage way, referred for the first time in 1863 as ‘islands of refuge’. This was the golden age of the bollard; the back half of the 19th Century with firmly datable records between 1874 and 1886.

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Echoing the bollard role as safety measure, around 1800, the humble ‘post’ began often to be referred to as ‘guard post’. But what about the cannon thing? The end of the Napoleonic wars was a big problem for cannon founders. One of the main solutions was to switch from guns to bollards using their existing gun moulds with modifications for text, graphic devices and so on. So, contrary to lore, cannons weren’t literally repurposed to bollards as far as the author can tell.

Bollards declined in number through most of the 20th Century as a result of the modern design imperative to declutter. This and space needing to be made for phone boxes, litter bins, tram lines etc. The comeback in the 1980s of the City bollard was driven by a PR branding exercise to distinguish the City from the rest of London when its independence came under threat as it has done frequently through its history. Their number was boosted further during the 1990s as part of the anti-terrorism ‘Ring of Steel’. During this period, like their phone box counterparts before them, bollards were given model categories: B5, C3 and D3. One for the anoraks, I feel .

The heroes of the book are, of course, the bollards themselves. But the human hero who stands out is William Haywood (1821-1894), whom one may fairly describe as the father of the modern City bollard. An energetic engineer, contemporary and colleague of Joseph Bazalgette, he played a major role in creating the Holborn Viaduct (1869) and the City of London Cemetery in Ilford (1856). In addition, he widened roads, modernised their surfaces, installed street lamps, dug tunnels and disinfected the sewers. Most of all, in the context of this book, he designed the original and now ubiquitous octagonal bollard that one sees everywhere in the Square Mile. Haywood was head of the City’s Commissioners of Sewers for 40 years from 1846, with a high level of independence from the Corporation itself. His mission was to transform the City into a modern metropolis. The author suggests that Haywood’s influence on the City was ‘arguably greater’ than Wren himself. And yet he received no honour or recognition; any credit that came his way was perfunctory and grudging; his Wikipedia entry is both tiny and vague. Why? The best explanation probably is that he unashamedly led a rather fruity private life for the times. Bollardology has done its bit to shine some light on this under-appreciated Londoner.

In the third chapter, Dr Ross turns to the bollards place in space, the streetscape, in ‘the public realm’, and returns to a more philosophical and whimsical vein with some interesting observations. ‘As you start projecting human feelings on to bollards, it’s very difficult to stop.’ As a resident of the Barbican, she considers them neighbours but is pessimistic about their future. ‘Bollards live or die by their usefulness’ and ‘they’re an expensive way of cluttering up the space.’ They are gradually being replaced in functionality by boxes and planters.

Bollardology is a thoughtful and clearly well-researched work, a pleasure to read. At least half of its pages are photographs or illustrations, all lovely. Whereas many history books today – even by supposedly reputable publishers (no names!) – are produced on horrible paper with sub-standard repro quality, this book is beautifully designed (by Joe Ewart) and printed on high quality stock (with spot varnish on the cover, no less: that’s pricy). What’s more, printed and bound in England! A quality item in every way from start to finish.

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Bollardology (150pp) by Dr Cathy Ross is published in soft cover by Quickfry Books with a cover price of £12.99. Richly illustrated throughout in full colour. Available from Guildhall Art Gallery here.

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