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Firepower, the museum of artillery in Woolwich, closes its doors today for the last time. This is a tragedy. As a former gunner myself I am possibly biased, but in my opinion it was the best military museum in London with brilliant staff, brilliant volunteers and an outreach programme second-to-none.

The museum’s archive has already been shipped out, leaving military history researchers in the lurch. Now the guns, ammunition, displays, ordnance equipment, medals collection (including 22 VCs from the 62 awarded to gunners) will be crated up, transported and stored at the Royal Artillery HQ in Larkhill, to be seen again when – who knows?

I realise that there were – and are – challenging problems, mainly financial, relating to the museum, but I believe a better way forward could have been sought and found. Surely. The Regiment appears to have taken the easy way out and another strand of the thread connecting Woolwich with gunners has been severed. A “gunners gallery” is to be opened at the Greenwich Heritage Centre later this year apparently. Big deal.

I understand from speaking to various people that the ultimate decision to close the museum came from the Master Gunner, General Granville-Chapman.

Anyway, there you go. More heritage denied. I’ll pop into the museum for one last look today. I’d like to thanks all the staff and volunteers at Firepower for their enthusiasm and hospitality they’ve extended every time I’ve visited, an experience shared by many thousands down the years. Good luck with all future endeavours. Ubique!

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The Shocking Case of Sarah Trimmer School, Brentford.

THE SARAH TRIMMER SCHOOL Instituted in the year 1786 For Religious Instruction and Industry Supported by annual Subscriptions and Benefactions and the produce of the Children's work

THE CHURCH SCHOOL
Instituted in the year 1786
For Religious Instruction and Industry
Supported by annual Subscriptions
and Benefactions
and the produce of the Children’s work

This sign adorns the street-side wall of 367 Brentford High Street, widely known as Mrs Trimmer’s School Room. Built in 1806, it is Grade II listed and historically highly significant. First, as recent research by historians James Wisdom and Val Bott has made clear, it is probably the only surviving example of a Georgian industrial school. Second, its association with its founder, Mrs Sarah Trimmer, a well-known educationalist of the time. It survived in its primary role – and also as a Sunday School – deep into the 19th Century, long after its founder’s death. Hence the building’s importance and heritage is unquestionable and something of which Brentfordians can rightly feel proud.

This view is not shared by the developers IDM West London Limited.

These developers who – to the consternation of many locals – have caused severe damage to the fabric of the building over the past two months, violently removing chimneys and roof and causing cracks to at least two of the main walls. Following the unauthorised removal of the roof, a Hounslow enforcement officer ordered them to protect the building with a cover and to cease further work. It was only after several downfalls that the cover was installed, a good 10 days later. Late last week and in breach of the order, the builders on site sand blasted the paint from two of the outside walls, forcing the council to intervene again on 9 June, this time with a Temporary Stop Order. The problem is that breaking the order can result in a maximum fine of only £20,000, hardly a deterrent to a rapacious developer.

Chimneys violently ripped out.

Chimneys violently ripped out.

Severe cracks have appeared.

Severe cracks have appeared in two of the walls.

The roof, apart from existing damage by the developers, in generally good shape.

The roof, apart from existing damage by the developers, in generally good shape.

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The roof: gone!

Having been told to suspend work on the building, the developers sandblasted two of the walls in a way you probably won't see in any English Heritage manual.

Having been told to suspend work on the building, the developers have sandblasted two of the walls in a process you probably won’t see recommended in any English Heritage manual.

A horrible extra side effect of the roof destruction is the loss of an interesting structure in the beams which was probably a flue of some sort – long disused – from an earlier incarnation of the roof. There can’t be many examples around – but now it’s gone. (see pictures below)

The truth of the matter is that the workers on this site have been attacking this poor old building like a troop of drunken chimpanzees with jackhammers. As a lay person it’s difficult to say, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the structural integrity of this building has been compromised as a result of its violent treatment.

The interior of the building in January 2016. Note the rectangular frame in the beams.

The interior of the building in January 2016. Note the rectangular frame in the beams.

Detail.

Detail.

Some weeks ago, I contacted IDM West London to see if they could adequately explain their actions. To be fair, their Project Architect, Bal Heer, returned my call, chatted at length and sent me quite a detailed email of what they had done and why. Subsequent events have caused me to revisit it and this leapt off the page:

“2nd week of May the main contractor commenced temporary support of the chimney structure as recommended by the Structural Engineer. It is clear to see the extent of the chimney leaning into the roof in the photo below: Leaning chimney. During this propping process the large double chimney became unstable and had to be removed from the existing roof. Further investigation showed the extent of the damage to the roof structure and the decision was taken to remove as much of the load from the damaged roof structure, ie the tiles were removed carefully so they could be used again.”

Aha! Did they tell the council or seek advice? Of course not. This is the old oh-dear-what-a-shame routine beloved of developers when they wish to justify wrecking something inconvenient to themselves. It was used by another outfit very recently less than a mile up the road to smash down the frontage of some Victorian terraced houses (that’s a whole other story).

Sadly this case is by no means unique. But it typifies what developers get up to and, most of the time, what they get away with. Their sole ambition is to build ’em high and sell ’em high. They will milk the last penny from every square inch of a site, regardless of the consequences for our heritage or for local people. If an opportunity arose, say, to smash down the Cenotaph itself and put up a unit of “luxury apartments” called The Warrior Quarter, believe me there isn’t a developer in London who wouldn’t do it.

I am not a Nimby. We have to build new things and replace old things. But developers want it all. How do we stop this desecration of our heritage? As in this case, it’s vital that local people especially, and Londoners generally, continue to be vigilant and kick up a fuss immediately when they see or suspect heritage vandalism by developers. But more importantly – because they are able actually to do something – local authorities must intervene with maximum and swift vigour. Westminster Council did exactly this recently when a developer smashed down the Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale, a viable and thriving pub.

Well done them. All councils have a duty of care for their local heritage. I’d like for my council – London Borough of Hounslow – to build a fearsome, rottweiler reputation against developers who swan in here and smash up the fabric of our historic structures. Play by the rules and you’re very welcome. Do not, and you’re in big, big trouble. I’m hoping for more from them in this case. Let’s see how they go.

To repeat: if IDM West London contravenes the stop order, the maximum potential fine is £20K. Puny. This isn’t going to slow down any developer whose massively profitable project is held up by pesky council officers. More sanction need to be made available against law-breaking developers, and that must be jailtime. Go to Jail. Go Directly To Jail. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect 20 million. That’ll learn them to have some respect.

The perps.

The perps.


More images on our Flickr space, here.

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I was taking a stroll down to Brentford High Road yesterday and noticed that the old cop shop is for sale: it’s been closed for years. A typically charmless 60s commercial building, purpose-built for the boys in blue, it replaced the rather fetching Vestry Hall of 1900. The hall was designed by local architect Nowell Parr, many of whose pretty buildings (mainly Fullers pubs!) still decorate Brentford, Ealing and Chiswick. The old hall could host meetings and talks of over 600 attendees and also housed Brentford County Court. But in 1963, the bulldozers and wrecking-ball moved in. Progress!

I hope to do more on Nowell Parr in the near future. Meantime, enquiries regarding the lovely police station should be directed to Messrs Frank Knight.

 

nowell parr, vestry hall

Weep.

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Last November, outdoor advertising giant JCDecaux applied to Hounslow Council to change the famous Lucozade sign next to the M4 flyover in Brentford. They wished to switch the animated neon sign for a modern technology giant LCD screen, the type which has become commonplace on major trunk roads in recent years. The content was to remain Lucozade.

Locals (including me) got wind of this very late and there was outrage that the beloved sign was in danger. But on 31 January, the council turned down the application to sighs of relief all round. I announced this on Twitter which evinced a huge and positive response, and not just from Brentfordians. The sign is widely loved, it seems. Read more here. Not very good film clip by me on YouTube, here.

The current sign is, in fact, a 2010 replica of the original 1954 version which was on a building about 250 yards east of the current site. The first sign is stored in Gunnersbury Park Museum (worth visiting). Lucozade was a locally manufactured product along with other household names such as Mcleans toothpaste and Brylcreem. That remained the situation despite various mergers and takeovers over the late 20th century resulting finally in the pharmaceutical giant GSK. GSK offloaded the Lucozade brand to Japanese company Suntory last year, giving rise to the current Lucozade sign brouhaha.

I think this affair raises a lot of questions. First, if the owners of Lucozade decided they no longer wanted to pay for advertising, would it be okay for them to get free publicity on the massively busy M4 flyover? Furthermore, who would then pay for the electricity and maintenance of the sign? JC Decaux? Hounslow Council? English Heritage? I don’t think so.

There is a precedent, of sorts. Back in sixties, Ferodo – makers of brakes and related accessories – decided that their medium of choice was to be railway bridges and the deal was done, presumably with British Rail at that time. Of course, when the deal came to an end, clever Ferodo got many years of free advertising. Last year, the one on the Caledonian Road got painted over but I saw another one still proudly with us in Bow. There must be others.

Ferodo advert

Caledonian Road. Half done. “Ferally”

Ferodo Advert

Bow Road.

Of course, there are key differences. Ferodo brake pads are less personal products than Lucozade and crucially, the Ferodo signs are ubiquitous whereas the Lucozade sign is a one-off and has strong local connections. For the moment.

But what else is going on here? This is pure speculation on my part. Suntory have picked up Lucozade, and with it the Brentford sign, which like it or not, they’re obliged to keep going. What to do? Change the sign for a modern one while committing to keeping the advertisement exclusively Lucozade as a sop to local and motorway traveler sentiment while fulfilling the heritage brief. Then, it’s the easiest thing in the world to change to other advertisers later because with a modern sign, the heritage argument has actually been lethally undermined.

Suntory and JC Decaux will be back. In the end, I think they will win. For some of the above reasons, I believe we must reluctantly accept that the sign will eventually go, there are much more deserving things to fight for around London. Equally as worthy in my opinion, but I didn’t hear anyone complaining (except me!) when we lost the lovely Christmas trees on the old Beecham building after Barratt Homes took it over.

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Many were up in arms last week when English Heritage announced that, apart from existing commitments, it would be suspending its blue plaque activities. It was reluctantly taking this step, we learned, because of the severe cut in its grant from Westminster. It had “stood down” its advisory team, comprising Stephen Fry, Andrew Motion and Bonnie Greer (yes, I wondered too!). Much gnashing and wailing of teeth ensued in the press (kicked off by the Guardian, who got its sums completely wrong. Bless), and also on Twitter and Facebook. You’d have thought that all the EH blue plaques were to be torn off the very walls they adorned.

I don’t think we should be overly concerned.

First, it could be argued that we have too many plaques on our streetscape already. If it pleases your worship, I offer you this:

Blue Plaques English Heritage

Further comment superfluous. But in case you’re in thrall to the miracles of Homeopathy, it’s very near South Kensington tube station.

Second, English Heritage don’t have a monopoly on memorial plaques. Just some of the organisations which have put up plaques over the years include London County Council, Greater London Council, Dead Comics Society, City of Westminster, Mayor of London, Hayes Literary Society, The Corporation of the City of London, National Art Collections Fund, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charities Foundation, London Borough of Southwark, John and Ruth Howard Charitable Trust. And on and on. What’s more, attractive as the EH plaques are, some of the others are equally and indeed more so. And in a variety of shapes, colours, sizes. We need variety, and London does higgledy-piggledy rather well.

London Plaques

I’m particularly fond of this world-weary item, provenance apparently unknown.

London Plaques

Third, if we have to have new plaques, it doesn’t have to be English Heritage who takes care of matters. Its ugly sister, the National Trust, is apparently willing to step into the breach. Furthermore, subject to listing, ownership and possibly by-laws I’m not aware of, you can do your own plaques if you have a mind to. Just last summer, the Historic Kilburn Plaque Scheme, led by Ed Fordham (LH Member) put up a plaque to George Orwell.

Finally, I’d like to point out that I’m a fan of English Heritage, in fact I’m a very recent joiner. They run their properties well and have delightful staff. I can see that George Osborne’s Big Cut will give them a nasty headache. But we don’t really need new English Heritage blue plaques particularly urgently one way or another in my view; I suspect they have used this suspension as much as a publicity stunt as anything, and rather successfully, so it would seem. We needn’t get our knickers in a twist.

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Today it was announced that the Palace of Westminster would not, after all, be making an entry charge to the Clock Tower to visit Big Ben. Not until 2015, in any case. The House of Commons Commission seemingly backed down after protests from a group of MPs. The suggested ticket price was £15. Yes one-five pounds.

Instead of coming up with a sensible and fair price, the default position was immediately to fleece the punter. Why? Because they can, and there’s plenty of precedent. The Monument – a not dissimilar experience, I would suggest – charges a sensible £3, and I look forward to going up there soon. Most boutique museums and “lesser” historic sites tend to charge £5 – 7. Fair enough. My nearest, the Kew Bridge Steam Museum, charges £10. A tad pricy, perhaps, but your ticket does at least last for 12 months. I wish more museums would do this.

Sites which were once free but have recently introduced entry charges are the Temple Church (£3, I think, info not available on their web site) and Flamsteed House at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (£7). Not too bad, on the face of it, but again, once the charging principle has been established, price inflation is much easier to implement: the thin end of the wedge.

Remember Kew Gardens. It famously used to cost a penny to get in. When I first visited in the early 80s this had gone up to a few shillings, I can’t remember the exact amount. Today it costs a whopping £13.90. Other entry prices I find quite frankly shocking, include: Tower of London, £20.90; Hampton Court Palace, £16.95; St Paul’s, £14.50; Westminster Abbey, £16.00.

Now, I am a believer in the free market and the idea that you can price anything at what the market will bear, supply and demand and all that. But there are punters out there who will, for example, stump up £150 or more from a tout for a ticket to see, I dunno, let’s say U2 or Blur. Doesn’t make it right. No, my problem is that residents of this country, and Londoners in particular, are being priced out of big swathes of their heritage. And I include myself in this, incidentally. I strongly believe there should be a two-tier pricing system to take this into account.

Thankfully, many of our biggest museums and galleries are still free, and I congratulate them and the government for maintaining this situation. Long may it continue. My favourites are the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

What do you think about ticket pricing in our museums and heritage attractions? Do you know of other examples of charging being introduced?

*Prices cited here are from the relevant web sites of attractions themselves at time of writing.

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london historians flagAs our first full calendar year in existence draws to a close, here are some of the highlights enjoyed by our Members, other friends, but in particular, by me. Writing up this blog is certainly one of them, and I’d like to thank all of you who have read and commented.

It was only when I sat down to make a list of what we’ve done this year that it dawned on me quite how much we have been up to. Loads. I have tried to be as brief as possible by listing and linking if you’d like to revisit some of this stuff. I have almost certainly forgotten to include some items, but here’s a summary of what I remember, and thanks to all who supported us.

Events
London Historians launch party at the Georgian Group
Our tour of Acton Depot
Our guided tour of Maida Vale with London Walks
Our guided walk along the Embankment with Thames expert Brian Cookson
John Stow Memorial Service at St Andrew Undershaft
Guided Tour of Clerkenwell with London Walks
A day out in Bath organised and hosted by our members in the South West
St John’s Gate with Blue Badge Guide Andy Rashleigh
Tour of Hawksmoor Churches
History in the Pub I and History in the Pub II
Guided Tour of Kensal Green Cemetery and its catacombs
Stones of London talk at London History Festival with Nigel Jones and Leo Hollis
Chiswick Tour: Hogarth’s House and Chiswick House
Ghost station tour of Aldwych Station
Art in the City: Our final tour of the year around the City of London and a visit to the Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre

Here are a selection of pictures from London Historians events this year. They focus on people rather than historic sites and monuments. For those, please click on the links as listed above.

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Our March 2011 launch party at the Georgian Group was a fabulous evening.

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Our tour of the Thames Embankment with history author and guide, Brian Cookson.

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On the Little Venice Tour

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The John Stow Memorial Service at St Andrew Undershaft in the City.

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Our members in the South-West organised a conference and tour of Bath.

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Tour of London Transport Museum's Acton Depot

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History in the Pub I and II, Spitalfields. An enormous success which we'll develop further in 2012.

Monthly Pub Meet May – December.
We meet on the first Wednesday of each month. We started with the venerable Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street. This was fine early days when there were about half a dozen attendees, but as the party grew, there was just too much echo in there for good conversation. So for one month we gave the wonderful Princess Louise in Holborn a go. But like “the Cheese”, it gets extremely crowded, altogether too noisy for comfort. For November and December, we used The Windsor Castle in Francis Street, SW1. By this time our group had grown to over twenty. They have given us the upstairs section for exclusive London Historians use: its perfect for us. So from Wednesday, 4 January 2012 and until further notice, you’ll find the London Historians there.

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Bottoms up! Various monthly pub meets.

Author! Author!
Many congratulations to members who had books published this year. Melanie Backe-Hansen, Emily Brand, Essie Fox, Kate Colquhoun, Mathew Lyons, Leo Hollis, David Long, Nigel Jones, Mark Mason, Mike Rendell and Samantha Bird. Looking forward to books coming out in 2012 (that I know about) by Essie Fox, Lucy Inglis, Ade Teal, David Long, Jerry White, Sarah Whittingham.

Mentioned in Despatches
So many people have contributed to our success this year, I rue that I cannot list them all. However, there is a coterie of individuals whose steadfast support has been invaluable to me personally and I must name them publicly: Pete Berthoud, Matt Brown, Caroline Derry, Jo Moncrieff, Fiona Pretorius, Peter Stone, Jane Young.

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn
We have made many friends – members and non-members alike – through these forums. At time of writing we have over 4,500 followers on Twitter, 467 Friends on Facebook and I’m on LinkedIn as myself but with lots of history and heritage connections. We tweet as @LondonHistorian. If you’re not connected to us yet on any of these, please feel free to hook up!

London Historians Newsletter
I have really enjoyed compiling this every month. I’d like to thank the following for providing superb and stimulating articles: Patrick Baty, Samantha Bird, Victoria Buckley, Brian Cookson,  Stephen Halliday, Tracey Hill, Leo Hollis, Ursula Jeffries, David Long, Mathew Lyons, Mark Mason, Mike Rendell, Martin Sach, Peter Stone, Tom Sykes, Martin Thompson, Adrian Tinniswood.

Thanks too to our members who have entered our competitions and won signed history books. You can look forward to more of the same in 2012.

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A selection of signed books won by our members this year.

2012
There will be similar and different things to look forward to next year, only more and even better. We will be developing History in the Pub which has proved to be a big hit. We will be doing more specialised, unusual and occasionally rather wacky guided historic tours in conjunction with qualified guides who are London Historians members – there are now over a dozen, and they’re all brilliant. We’ll continue to build relationships with London’s heritage institutions to organise special visits and negotiate member discounts. We’ll work with members to promote their projects.

We now have just over 250 members. My biggest pleasure this year is to have made so many new friends, but more than this – much more than this – is the knowledge that through London Historians, many of our members have made friends with each other and in many cases work with one another in mutual support on various projects. This is how I wanted London Historians to be, this is what it is for. Long may it continue.

If you’re thinking about joining London Historians, see what our members say, they are far more eloquent than me!

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