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Archive for the ‘Local History’ Category

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 post by LH Member Brian Cookson. This article was first published in LH Members’ Newsletter of August 2014.


By the early nineteenth century, with the increase in population in west London and improvements in transport from the centre, people who wanted to cross the river from Hammersmith to the Surrey side by road had to make a five mile detour either via Kew or Putney Bridge.

After the usual abortive attempts to construct a river crossing, a group of local people formed the Hammersmith Bridge Company and raised £80,000 with a view to presenting a Bill before Parliament. Despite strong opposition from the proprietors of Kew and Putney Bridges, the Act enabling the building of Hammersmith Bridge, which was to be the first suspension bridge over the River Thames, finally received Royal Assent on 9 June 1824.

The engineer chosen to design Hammersmith Bridge was William Tierney Clark who was the engineer of the nearby West Middlesex waterworks. Clark’s proposed design of a suspension bridge at Hammersmith was attractive as it required the construction of only two river piers and provided a 400 ft. wide navigation path for shipping.

Tierney Clark’s magnum opus was undoubtedly the famous chain bridge over the Danube at Budapest. The bridge was completed in 1849 and survived until its destruction by the retreating German army in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. After the end of the war the bridge was rebuilt according to Tierney Clark’s original design and stands today as a foreign monument to the great engineer.

The choice of a suspension bridge was a daring decision to take, since no successful large-scale suspension bridge had ever been built except for the pioneering Union Bridge over the River Tweed near Berwick, constructed in 1820 by Captain Samuel Brown (1776-1852). Brown supplied the ironwork for Hammersmith Bridge, but it was Tierney Clark who designed it with two massive stone river towers which supported the suspension chains and formed a Tuscan archway through which the road platform ran. Since Thomas Telford (1757-1834) was in the process of constructing a similar suspension bridge over the Menai Straits between Wales and Anglesey at this time, Clark submitted his plan for Telford’s comments. There was considerable mutual respect as well as rivalry between the great engineers of the nineteenth century and so it was not surprising when they asked each other’s advice.

Telford’s Menai Bridge was completed in 1826, one year earlier than Hammersmith Bridge. The Menai Bridge has a central span between the supporting towers of 579 ft. However, the road between the towers and the shore is supported on masonry arches. At Hammersmith the central span between the river towers is 400 ft, but the suspension chains also support the road platforms between the river towers and the river bank. This gives a total length of 688 ft. and allows the claim that Clark’s Hammersmith Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time it was built.

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Tierney Clark’s Hammersmith Bridge of 1827.

From a practical point of view, the bridge had significant shortcomings. The width of the carriageway was 20 ft. and there were two footpaths of 5 ft. on either side. This was not unreasonable for the traffic conditions at the time, except that where the road went under the thick stone arches its width was reduced to only 14 ft. and at this point it had to provide for both vehicles and pedestrians. Traffic was about to increase substantially not least because of the existence of the bridge itself. It could even be said that the bridge put Hammersmith on the map rather than vice versa.

With the creation of the Metropolitan Water Board in 1855, pressure grew to free all the bridges in its area of toll charges, especially since the upstream bridges from Kew to Staines had already been freed . In 1877 the Metropolis Toll Bridges Act was passed to allow for the MBW to purchase the bridges and abolish the tolls. Hammersmith, Putney and Wandsworth Bridges were all declared toll free on the same day, 26 June 1880.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the MBW which now owned the bridge, was concerned about its safety. He produced a report recommending the complete reconstruction of the bridge superstructure on top of the existing pier foundations, and in 1883 an enabling Act was passed.

The new Hammersmith Bridge, like the old, was designed on the suspension principle but has a much more fanciful appearance than its predecessor. Structurally there are major differences in the use of material. The suspension chains are of steel rather than wrought iron. The river towers, instead of being built of stone, have frames of wrought iron which are clad in ornamental cast iron. Since iron is lighter than the equivalent strength masonry, the towers take up less space and allow a wider opening for river traffic through the arches. As a result, the carriageway under the arches is now 21 ft. wide, instead of 14 ft., and there is room for two 6 ft. footways which are cantilevered and curl round the outside of the towers rather than sharing the carriageway with the road as with the old bridge. On the river banks, instead of the toll gates which had been located there when the old bridge was built, Bazalgette constructed highly decorative abutments which take the suspension chains underground to a depth of 40 ft. where they are firmly anchored.

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The current bridge, by Sir Joseph Bazalgette.

Unfortunately, the bridge has suffered from problems of wear and tear, and has had to be closed a number of times. Natural deterioration has not been the only danger to which Hammersmith Bridge has been exposed . The IRA has tried to blow it up on no less than three occasions, but with limited success. Not everyone has agreed with the aesthetic merits of this bridge. William Morris, who owned a riverside house in Hammersmith, called it simply ‘this ugly suspension bridge’. However today it stands as a monument to Victorian engineering and design, beloved by the public, and seen by millions as the Oxford and Cambridge boat race crews strain for victory as they pass underneath every year.

See also.


Brian Cookson is the author of Crossing the River: The History of London’s Thames River Bridges from Richmond to the Tower and London’s Waterside Walks. He is also a Blue Badge Guide who offers various fascinating guided walks of London.
Find out more on his web page: www.lonwalk.ndirect.co.uk/.

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A guest post by London Historians member David Brown. This article was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from June 2014.

I live close to Belsize Park, a largely Victorian residential suburb in North London with a tube station on the Northern Line. Walk around today and it is a rather pleasant place to live and visit – but you will also find the footprint of the earlier and rather grander history of the area, based around what was the grandest house in Hampstead. The street layout today echoes the grand gardens that were visited by
Sam Pepys and John Evelyn. It’s an area really worth visiting.

The name of the area comes from the old French “Bel Assis” or beautifully situated, referring to its geographical position on Haverstock Hill with views out over the City of London. It has had a long association with Westminster Abbey who received fifty-seven acres of Hampstead land in 1317 from Sir Roger le Brabazon, who was Lord Chief Justice for King Edward II. Westminster Abbey leased the land to a stream of different landowners, and the first grand house is thought to have been built in 1496, and became the home of the Waad family (the most famous member is probably Armigell Waad who thought to have been an early visitor to North American, travelling to Newfoundland in 1536) . The house was rebuilt several times – in 1663 by Colonel Daniel O’Neil. His son Lord Wotton improved the house by adding a large park possibly employing John Tradescant the younger to do so – it certain impressed Sam Pepys who visited on 17th August 1668 reporting the gardens “too good for the house … the most noble that ever I saw, and brave Orange and Lemon trees”, although John Evelyn by contrast was unimpressed – he found the gardens ill-kept and the soil “a cold weeping clay”. The gardens also boasted lakes made from a tributary of the River Tyburn that rises in the area.

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Belsize Park on Roque’s map of 1746.

New life to the house and park came in 1704 when they were leased by entrepreneur Charles Povey. He turned the house into a public attraction, with music, dancing and gambling. The gardens were used for deer-hunting, horse racing, and even footman racing. Belsize Park became well known as a Pleasure Garden well before Ranelagh and Vauxhall Gardens opened. The Prince and Princess of Wales visited in 1721, and this stamp of approval led to huge attendances – with over 300 coaches a day visiting the gardens. The management also provided a dozen sturdy armed guards to protect visitors as they travelled between Belsize Park and London. The resort faced the same difficulties as other resorts and became known as a “scandalous and lew’d house” leading to its closure by local magistrate in the 1740s. Early maps of the area show the house and the boundary of the old house – and a painting exists showing the original estate.

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View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex 1690, b, Jan Siberechts – Tate Britain.

The house was rebuilt in 1745 as a private house. The only Prime Minister to have the misfortune to be assassinated, Spencer Perceval lived here with his family from 1798 to 1807 – he is remembered in the modern street Perceval Avenue close to this spot. The house was rebuilt again in 1812, and survived until it was demolished in 1853. It was incidentally on the route of one of Charles Dicken’s regular walks – and he wrote about a murder that took place on Cut-Throat lane – a path that skirted the park on the east.

Today there are two small remainders of the park – an old mulberry tree in the garden on the site of the house, and a part of the brick wall of the original estate (not easily visible from the public road).

Belsize Park is famous for the rather grand houses built by builder and speculator Daniel Tidey. He started building in this area in 1856, and finally overstretched himself in 1869 when he was bankrupted. Tidey houses are large (6 to 8 bedrooms), typically semi-detached villas and were built for well-off people such as merchants, and professionals. They were built to a fairly standard design with white stucco, and many have a large bay at the back in the main reception rooms – a Tidey introduction intended to be used for the grand pianos that were become widely used in this period.

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Typical Daniel Tidey “Belsize Park” houses.

The House and Park became Belsize Square – a large rectangular space, surrounded by Tidey Houses, with the local church at the north end . The church St Peter’s Belsize Square (architects J P St Aubyn and W Mumford) was completed in 1859. The name of the church is linked to Westminster Abbey – as it provided the land. The church was largely paid for by the first Vicar – Rev Dr Francis Tremlett, who also paid for the building of a massive vicarage (now demolished) at the southern end of the Square. Tremlett is an interesting character – travelling to the US when young to preach to the poor, he met his wife who provided his money, returned to the UK to become Vicar of St Peter’s, and remained Vicar for overr over 50 years. He was quite a character, being one of the strongest supporters of the South in the US Civil War. He was a key player lobbying the government to support the South, and the vicarage became known as “The Rebel Roost” as many Confederate Officers spent time staying with him in Belsize Park – including the Admiral and Officers of the CSS Alabama when it was sunk off the coast of Cherbourg in 1864. After the war he was visited by Andrew Davis the Confederate President.

To learn more about the local area, it is very well documented, and you can read about the details in the Streets of Belsize edited by Peter Woodford and revised by Christopher Wade, Camden History Society, 2009. The area also benefits from two local history DVDs, The Belsize Story Volume 1 and Volume 2 both with commentary by Fiona Bruce, and produced by film producer David Percy.



David Brown is a historian, genealogist and London Walking Guide. David is also available to provide customised tours of many parts of London including the Belsize Park area. Camden Tour Guides Association runs regular tour guiding courses, and the next one will start in September – we welcome any historians who are interested in the London Borough of Camden, and would like to learn guiding techniques. You can find out more and apply at camdenguides.com.

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A guest post by Caroline Derry. This article originally appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from May 2014.

5b3cc99c-e7d9-457a-97c6-7e780f93fb87When Tsar Peter the Great visited London in 1696 to learn about shipbuilding and naval architecture, it was natural that he should stay in Deptford. After all, the town had England’s foremost Royal Dockyard, and was close to the Naval Hospital and Observatory in neighbouring Greenwich. The river offered easy travel into London. And conveniently, Sayes Court, the Deptford home of John Evelyn, had just become available to rent.

John Evelyn is best remembered today as a diarist, albeit overshadowed by his contemporary Samuel Pepys. Perhaps his greatest influence, though, was in gardening and forestry. As well as designing his own and friends’ gardens, he wrote horticultural works ranging from the Elysium Britannicum, a major (if unfinished) work of gardening history, to Acetaria: a Discourse of Sallets, devoted to salad plants but including discussion of vegetarianism and a selection of recipes. The work with which he was most closely identified was Sylva, a treatise on tree cultivation; he was later even nicknamed ‘Sylva’ Evelyn.

Sylva was the first book published by the Royal Society, in 1664. A learned and wide-ranging work on forestry, it aimed to encourage the planting of trees to replace those lost in the Civil War or cut down for industrial use. The practical purpose of this was made clear in the sub-title: A Discourse of Forest Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in his Majesty’s Dominions. The book proved a double success, not only selling well but also achieving its greater aim. Landowners answered Evelyn’s call to plant trees – and in doing so, they provided raw material for the ships which helped win the Napoleonic Wars nearly a century and a half later. In a foreshadowing of a popular phrase from that war, Evelyn had described the Navy as the nation’s ‘wooden walls’.

Meanwhile, Sayes Court was proving an ideal testing ground for Evelyn’s work on gardening, despite suffering from easterly winds. The nearby docks meant that foreign plants were readily available; the large site offered scope for ideas he had gathered on a grand tour of France and Italy. His ideas on creating naturalistic gardens probably influenced developments in landscape design which would come to fruition in the eighteenth-century work of Repton and ‘Capability’ Brown.

As well as private gardens with flowers, herbs and bee-hives, there were extensive grounds and an ornamental lake. It is no surprise that the author of Sylva included orchards and a grove of various tree species. A contemporary described the garden as ‘most boscaresque’, while Pepys enthused over its ‘variety of evergreens and hedges of holly, the finest things I ever saw in my life.’

The garden was Evelyn’s pride and joy: he had started planting it even before the purchase of the house was complete in 1652. Many illustrious guests came to Sayes Court to admire its gardens, and were generally welcomed by him. His diary for June 1685, though, records a more surprising would-be visitor:

A large whale was taken betwixt my land butting on the Thames and Greenwich, which drew an infinite concourse to see it, by water, coach, and on foote, from London and all parts. It appeared first below Greenwich at low water, for at high water it would have destroyed all the boats; but lying now in shallow water, incompassed with boats, after a long conflict it was killed with a harping yron, struck in the head, out of which it spouted blood and water by two tunnells, and after a horrid grone it ran quite on shore and died.

The gardens themselves later suffered a rather undignified experience at the hands of Peter the Great and his friends. Apparently more interested in heavy drinking than the appreciation of horticulture, the Russian visitors did a great deal of damage to the property – but what seems to have upset Evelyn most was the harm to his holly hedge caused by the Tsar driving wheelbarrows through it. On 5 June 1698 he wrote:

I went to Deptford to see how miserably the czar had left my house after three months’ making it his court. I got Sir Christopher Wren, the king’s surveyor, and Mr. Loudon, his gardener, to go and estimate the repairs, for which they allowed £150 in their report to the Lords of the Treasury.

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Peter the Great Memorial, Deptford.

Among the items to be repaired were 300 broken panes of glass, 170 feet of oak wainscoting, and 240 feet of fencing, as well as grease and ink damage to the floors. Damage to the furniture added another £133. Two months after Peter’s departure, the Treasury awarded Evelyn the then-enormous sum of over £350 in compensation.

While the physical injury to the prized holly hedge was seemingly not permanent, the injury to Evelyn’s feelings was more enduring. He would write in a subsequent edition of Sylva:

Is there under heaven a more glorious and refreshing object of the kind, than an impregnable hedge of about four hundred feet in length, nine foot high, and five in diameter; which I can shew in my now ruin’d gardens at Say’s-Court, (thanks to the Czar of Muscovy) at any time of the year, glitt’ring with its arm’d and varnish’d leaves? … It mocks at the rudest assaults of the weather, beasts, or hedge-breakers.

Sadly, drastic changes followed Evelyn’s death in 1706. The holly hedge could not mock the rude assaults of the expansion of the neighbouring dockyard or the replacement of Evelyn’s home with a workhouse. Sayes Court gardens have now all but disappeared. Most of the grounds are underneath Convoy’s Wharf (itself derelict pending a controversial redevelopment) although a small area survives as Sayes Court Park. Its ancient mulberry tree, now in poor health, may have been part of the original gardens.

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Evelyn’s name is found in many Deptford street and place names, but his contribution to victory in the Napoleonic Wars is largely forgotten. His unruly tenant Peter the Great has arguably fared better, since his statue stands on the river front. However, its strange and unflattering portrayal of the Tsar makes it a rather mixed blessing!


Further reading on Sayes Court:
There is very good Wikipedia article.
The London’s Lost Garden blog has a lot of discussion of the garden and the possibility of restoring it.

… finally, an excellent book was published last year by Margaret Willes (LH Member!): The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.


Caroline Derry
Caroline – a long-standing London Historians Member – is the author of the Caroline’s Miscellany blog, which focuses on London history and ghost signs. She has lived in Deptford for over a decade, and is fascinated by its past and the physical traces which remain.

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The Wandsworth Prison Museum was founded and has been run by a London Historians Member for the past 10 years. He is a serving prison officer at HMP Wandsworth. He has organised these on-site events during 2018.

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WANDSWORTH PRISON MUSEUM
2008-2018 10th Anniversary Events

20.5.18 Boardroom Talk “ The Prison & the First World War” Spies, hangings,
Conscientious Objectors, Easter Rising.

8.7.18 “The Ronnie Biggs escape” (8.7.1965) External and internal wall walk
and talk during the history tour of the escape.

8.9.18 Boardroom talk “Wandsworth’s Last hanging and the end of capital
punishment” (8.9.1961)

4.11.18 Boardroom talk “Oscar Wilde, his time at HMP Wandsworth

The above events are taking place for a maximum of 20 per event, as part of a small scale celebration of 10 years of the Wandsworth Prison Museum.

The venue for the talks is the Governor’s Boardroom inside the prison but all groups will meet initially at the Wandsworth Prison Museum at 11am. The talks and one walk will be for approximately one hour.

To book.
As the venue is inside the prison, the following is needed to make a booking:
Name, address and date of birth of each visitor. Visitors must be over the age of 18.
One booking per person, which is not transferable as there may be a waiting list should any event be over booked.
Bookings can be made by emailing: Wandsworthprisonmuseum@hmps.gsi.gov.uk or in writing at Wandsworth Prison Museum, C/O POA Office, Heathfield Road, London SW18 3HS

The above is the current agenda, other events may be added if time and resources permit

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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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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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