Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Just downriver of Tower Bridge you have Wapping on the North bank (Middlesex, as was) and Bermondsey to the South (Surrey). To generalise a bit, the Wapping side has traditionally been about docks and wharfs – logically goods needed to load and offload near the consumers and manufacturers – that’s to say the City of London and what we know as the East End. The Bermondsey side tended to be where ships were manufactured, fitted out and repaired. Here were the homes and neighbourhoods of shipwrights and associated trades craftsmen.


Before the modern docks were built from the beginning of the 19th Century, this section of the Thames was choked solid with thousands of vessels – an unbroken forest of masts and rigging of merchantmen with service vessels, river taxis, lighters and the like weaving between them as best they could.

Today at low tide, archaeologists go down to the river’s beaches and try to make sense of past from the valuable but shifting clues left behind. Last Thursday professional archaeologists and volunteers from Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) hit the mud on the Bermondsey side to study a section. All tape measures, clipboards and wellies. One of their number, Eliott Wragg, gave a public tour of the area and the operation to about 20 of us “civvies”. We kicked off with a nice surprise: some ruins of an ancient manor house or possibly a hunting lodge dating from around 1350 . I knew of this building but not exactly where it was. Now I do.


King Edward III’s manor house. Possibly.


Archaeologists at work.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

Eliott explains.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

Rudder of an 18C frigate, re-purposed as part of wharf or dock structure.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

Heading upriver.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

“A Fine Summer’s Day in London”

Fellow LH Member Hannah Renier and I really enjoyed our outing with the TDP as we did at Vauxhall a few months ago.  We managed to squeeze in some mudlarking while we were at it. I was very excited to find my first clay pipe stem; an hour later we’d amassed dozens. Obvious, really, that “finds” should be more plentiful just down from the City.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey

Eliott, Hannah, Eddie the dog.


Some of the stuff we found. Crockery bits, rusty nails, clay pipe stems.


The Thames Discovery Programme is an archaeological group comprising around 300 volunteers and a tiny complement of full-time staff (2.5 members, to be precise). Its mission is to record, measure, monitor the largest archaeological site in Britain: the Thames foreshore. A major part of its remit is public engagement: walks, talks, site visits. With a little training, you can join them as a FROG (Foreshore Recording and Observation Group), i.e. volunteer. Or just tag along for an outing as we did. It’s all on their web site.


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

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

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

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

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

Here are a few pictures from our special visit.

wellcome library

Ross MacFarlane in full flow: such an enthusiast.

wellcome library

How a good library should look.

wellcome library

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

wellcome library

Ross and Chris (foreground) doing show and tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yesterday I had the great pleasure of joining two fellow Members, Victor Keegan and Hannah Renier, on a mooch around the Thames foreshore with the good people from the Thames Discovery Programme (Sunny, Eliott, John, Roger). They are a volunteer archaeology group whose mission is to discover and record as much as possible of the river’s shoreline: it is in constant flux and requires essential and frequent monitoring.

Afterwards we stopped at the local caff for much needed hot coffee and I was introduced to David Coke, co-author of the award-winning book Vauxhall Gardens: A History. I remember seeing this magnificent tome at the Vauxhall Gardens exhibition at the Foundling Museum last year, so it was nice to make the connection. My eyes popped out on cartoony stalks as David produced over a dozen historical maps of the tightly focused stretch of the river we had just explored going back many centuries and then right up until quite recent Ordnance Survey. Fascinating stuff.  David’s web site on Vauxhall Gardens is here.

On our beach stroll itself, Vic Keegan has beaten me to it (of course he has: he’s a Journalist with a capital J) and written this up on his fine blog, London My London. So I’ll simply share some captioned pictures.

If you’re a London Historians Member, we’ll be organising an outing with the Thames Discovery Programme later this year, look out for it on the web site and in your monthly newsletter.


Mooching about the foreshore with the Thames Discovery Programme.


Hardy LH Members, Vic and Hannah, with Ed the Dog.


Wooden moldings for a concrete structure, not yet identified or dated.


One of several bronze age piles thought to have supported a jetty or possibly even a bridge. As featured in the unlamented (by me) Time Team.


Upriver or down, it’s impossible to take a photo of lovely Vauxhall Bridge without an ugly tower stinking up the joint.


Vauxhall Bridge, very pretty. Opened in 1906, it replaced the original bridge of 1816.


One of eight statues representing arts, sciences and manufacturing which decorate the bridge. This one is Pottery. Sculptors Drury and Pomeroy also made Justice on the Old Bailey.


Vauxhall Bridge showing structure from the old paddle steamer jetty from before any bridge existed.


Where lesser know tributary the Effra meets the Thames. Prior to embankement it was a tad upstream from here.


Downstream of the bridge, the Albert Embankment, by the mighty Bazalgette. Serpentine lamposts reflect those on the Middlesex bank opposite.

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The beautiful Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster has always been overshadowed by its famous sibling for lack of a large clock. It is not an attention-seeker in that way. And doesn’t need to be.

The tower was one of the last parts of the new Palace to be completed, in 1860, twenty six years after the destruction by fire of the old Houses of Parliament, and a matter of days after the death of Sir Charles Barry, its creator.

the victoria tower

Architecturally, the function of the tower is to lend symmetry as a counterweight to the Clock Tower at the Thames end of the palace complex. But more important than this, the Victoria Tower is the home of the Parliamentary Archives and designed specifically for this purpose. While most of the Commons’ records were lost in the conflagration of 1834, the Jewel Tower, housing the records of the House of Lords, fortunately survived and these documents are included in the collection.

The archives are housed in the floors above the entrance archway in fireproof and atmosphere-controlled conditions. They comprise (among many other items, see Factsheet, below), thousands of Acts of Parliament on parchment scrolls dating back to 1497. These come in all shapes and sizes, the biggest of which is estimated, unrolled, to be 345m long!

parliamentary archives westminsterparliamentary archives westminster

The tower was originally to be named the King’s Tower after William IV, the sovereign at the time of the 1834 fire, but since its building only started some seven years after his death, it became the Victoria Tower instead. It is 120m to the tip of the flagstaff and has twelve floors of archive space, accessed – before a lift was installed in the 1950s – by a 553 step cast-iron spiral staircase.

victoria tower

The staircase, from below.

An intriguing feature of the Tower is the octagonal aperture in the roof of the entrance. Its function is to allow the winching of heavy materials up to the first floor level. Even now its sliding door has to be hand-cranked to open it. I resembles a perfect execution mechanism used by a James Bond villain to drop its victim some 60ft (my estimate) to the pavement below. It’s also used by the army during the Opening of Parliament. Fully opened, an observer can see the exact moment that the Queen passes below and signal to the chaps on the roof to pull down the Union flag and to hoist the Royal Standard.

victoria tower

The partially-opened aperture for hoisting heavy items into the tower.

victoria tower

Clearly visible from below.

victoria tower

victoria tower

View of the Clock Tower from atop Victoria Tower

To find out more about the Victoria Tower, there is an excellent book Victoria Tower Treasures from the Parliamentary Archives by Caroline Shenton, David Prior and Mari Takayanagi. It is richly illustrated with stunning photographs. It’s available from the Parliamentary Bookshop at £17.99, here. (If you’re a London Historians member reading this, pull finger and enter the competition to win a signed copy by all three authors, per October members’ newsletter).

victoria tower treasures

My deepest thanks go to Caroline Shenton, Clerk of the Records (and London Historians member), for giving me a personal tour of the Tower. It was a privilege and a delight.

More information on the Parliamentary Archives.
Parliamentary Archive Services.
Factsheet (PDF file).

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I must share with you an article by Patrick Baty, who is an “architectural paint researcher” and runs a business in Chelsea which does much consultancy work in buildings conservation projects.  Dr Johnson’s House is a good example.  Reading his blog you can clearly see that what Patrick does is very much a bona fide branch of archaeology. This post in particular shows a detailed analysis of a 5mm thick sample comprising 71 layers of paint!

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Old Maps

Who doesn’t love an old map? I know I do.

I’d just like to share with you something I came across over the weekend: Cassini Maps, a web site where you can select an old map on any scale from various eras and purchase them online (as a file or as a print) at really reasonable prices, in my opinion. I’m going to give them a go.

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Jeremy Bentham's "Auto-Icon" at Univ...

Image via Wikipedia

After much beta testing and what-not, last week saw the launch of a crowdsourcing project by UCL to transcribe all the papers of Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), a “Londoner of Note”.

If you’d like to participate in this worthy venture, go here.

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