Posts Tagged ‘wandsworth’

Review: Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason, by Gary Powell.

death diaryThis less-than-cheerful and macabre title actually belies the light reading which exists between its covers. I say this, because there are 365 stories of between half to a page each. So the reading is easy and can be done in any order without losing any narrative thread. You may be on the train, bus stop, about to switch off the bedside lamp. Whatever: light reading. I love books like this.

The content, as described in the title, comprises one death-related story (mostly murders) for every single day of the year going way back in London’s history.

There are the high profile cases, as you would expect. The execution of Charles I at the Banqueting House; the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher at the Libyan Embassy; the murder by a down-on-his-luck rival of actor William Terriss outside the Adelphi Theatre; the Krays.

But for me it’s the more mundane, everyday tragedies which resonate. The landlady strangled and stabbed by her lodger; the heartbreaking story of a man who killed his own toddlers because he literally could not afford to feed his family – in a book where hangings abound, at least this tortured soul went to an asylum.

A great deal of these accounts fall between the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries. It is noticeable that the motive is so often tied to money – or the lack of it. Grinding poverty, money worries – they existed on a level that we would find difficult to comprehend today. The ultimate state sanction was not sufficient deterrent, clearly. The gallows at Wandsworth, Pentonville and elsewhere were kept rather busy, even to relatively recent times.

There are many stories of a man killing his wife or lover in a domestic, or very occasionally the other way around. As I say, on the face of it, mundane. So the danger is these accounts becoming a bit samey. In Death Diary, author Gary Powell – a retired Met officer of decades standing – skillfully avoids this with matter-of-fact narratives which are never boring and yet neither are they ever sensationalised. It’s a difficult one to explain, perhaps the policeman’s knack of succinctly delivering detail.

An excellent third London book from this author. It includes a short bibliography and “index of offenders” at the end and there’s a generous section of illustrations and photos in the middle. Recommended.

Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason (288pp) by Gary Powell is published in paperback by Amberley with a cover price of £14.99. An author-signed copy was featured as London Historians monthly book prize for February 2017.


Read Full Post »

Along with Pentonville, Wormwood (“the Scrubs”) Scrubs and Holloway for the ladies, HMP Wandsworth enjoys high brand recognition among the nation’s prisons. It was opened in 1851 as the Surrey House of Correction. In design it mainly comprised a central domed hub from which six three-storey wings emanated. Not quite the pure panopticon idea as Jeremy Bentham would have liked, but thinking along those lines. The regime also imposed the latest in prison theory – a separation and silence scheme whereby inmates neither saw nor heard their fellow lags from one year to the next – this was thought rather enlightened at the time. Wandsworth was a hanging gaol – originally for the County of Surrey – with a working gallows right up until 1993 (the death penalty in the UK was suspended under the Murder Act of 1965). Of its 153 condemned, notable victims included the traitor John Amery and Derek Bentley.

hmp wandsworth

HMP Wandsworth: imposing.

Last week a small group of London Historians members were given a tour of the prison. A proper tour. Right into the heart of the building, into the wings and among the prisoners themselves. They looked at us, totally without expression, for my part I found it rather unnerving. Though totally understandable, it’s a great shame that we could not take photos. I say this for purely architectural reasons, because the building is classic Victorian institutional architecture: imposing. The inevitable dome; countless bricks; much iron, as one would expect – bars, grilles, mesh. The paintwork throughout is cream and blue, which sounds nice at least. It is very noisy, helped along by the echo effect derived no doubt from the cavernous nature of the central hall. You really have to speak up to make yourself heard. You know he sound effects at the beginning of Porridge? It’s exactly like that, only more so. The whole experience was fascinating.

hmp wandsworth

Death warrants for high treason of John Amery and William Joyce (“Lord Haw-haw”)

HMP Wandsworth

Our group at the prison museum.

Afterwards we visited the prison’s tiny museum, which is outside the premises. One of our number has written that part of our visit here.

We are especially grateful to serving prison officer Stewart Mclaughlin who sanctioned our visit and chaperoned us throughout. He is the founding curator of the museum which he runs entirely on a voluntary basis. Stewart has offered our members another visit later in the year.

Read Full Post »

When I went to the preview of the HMP Wandsworth exhibition last week at the Wandsworth Museum, it was an unexpected treat to discover the De Morgan Centre in the same building. Never heard of it? Nor me. It so happened that it re-opened last Thursday after a complete two year re-fit. It houses a large proportion of the life’s works of  William De Morgan (1839 – 1917), ceramicist, and his wife, Evelyn De Morgan (1855 – 1919), painter. The De Morgan collection is displayed in a single room gallery. But it is a very large, high-ceilinged room which has been exquisitely appointed to house more of the collection than hitherto, including several paintings by Evelyn which have not been shown before and have been fully cleaned. The immediate effect as you enter is a breathtaking riot of colour. Quite spectacular.

De Morgan Centre

Photograph Nigel Frey. © De Morgan Foundation

De Morgan Centre

William and Evelyn De Morgan. © De Morgan Foundation

William De Morgan was born into a highly intellectual and progressive family. He was an aspiring artist who, disillusioned with the art establishment, fell in with William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement and the pre-Raphaelite crowd. Although something of a polymath, his primary interests were pottery and ceramics. He employed a wide range of influences, but much Eastern (particularly Isnik) as was the fashion. De Morgan was particularly focused on perfecting glaze techniques, resulting in gorgeous finishes, particularly using lustreware, a “lost” technique which he rediscovered through extensive experimentation. His works produced some of the tiles in Lord Leighton’s famous Arab Hall and he also completed commissions of compositions in tile for luxury cruise liners, a few of which are on show at the centre. William De Morgan had potteries in both Fulham and Chelsea. Late in life he turned his hand to writing novels with considerable success, especially in the USA, although some I have spoken to rate them as terrible!

De Morgan Centre

Dragon Tile. © De Morgan Foundation

De Morgan Centre

Dolphin Plate. © De Morgan Foundation

In 1887  De Morgan married Evelyn Pickering, 16 years his junior and at 32 almost considered “on the shelf” by the standards of the day. But Evelyn was an independently-minded woman, not given to bending to societal norms of the age. Having trained at the Slade on a scholarship in the 1870s (one of its first woman students), she had devoted her time to building a career as a painter. Her subjects were typical of the pre-Raphaelite themes of myth and allegory, not a few given to the idea of women being trapped or enslaved ( e.g. the Gilded Cage). Over half of her output is in the collection.

De Morgan Centre

The Guilded Cage. © De Morgan Foundation

De Morgan Centre

Luna. Newly-cleaned and on public display for the first time. © De Morgan Foundation

The De Morgans had a loving, supportive and successful marriage. Their circle included Morris, Ruskin, GF Watts, Leighton and other movers and shakers in the art world, although they were more Grosvenor Gallery types than the Royal Academy crowd (not being an art expert by any means, I wonder to what extent these distinctions are exaggerated?). They were intellectually progressive, very supportive of women’s suffrage. They were also pacifists and much interested in spiritualism (a disappointment to us, perhaps, but one must remember that many intellectuals of the day thought there was something in it).

One might argue that the De Morgan Centre and its collection are strictly for lovers of pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts genres. But no, it is a joyful, colourful space, beautifully decorated and lit. Evelyn’s paintings might not float everyone’s boat, but I defy you not to be amazed at the beauty of William’s creations.

The De Morgan Centre in Wandsworth costs £4 entry, free entry for Art Fund members. For opening hours etc. check their web site.

Read Full Post »

A good day for West London. First, the 157th Boat Race showing off our beloved neck of the woods to the world at large. Helicopter’s eye view of wonderful bridges and Thameside sites. It’s surprising how much greenery still exists in these built up areas. The Boat Race organisers no doubt kindly arranged the start for 17:00 hours so many of us could get home sharpish in time from the 31st West London Local History Conference.

The conference is sponsored by local history societies:
Barnes & Mortlake
Brentford & Chiswick
Fulham & Hammersmith
West Middlesex Family History Society

This year’s theme was Scientists & Innovators in West London History. The near sell-out audience were treated to talks on a variety of absorbing topics: Dr John Dee, an Elizabethan scientist from Mortlake, the remnants of whose library give us one of the biggest bodies of source evidence for Western natural philosophy in the late 16C;  George III’s scientific instruments from Kew (now in the Science Museum); the history of Price’s, the biggest candle manufacturer in the world during the Victorian era, which finally shut down as recently as 2000, although its brand name lives on; the potions, powders, pharmaceuticals and popular grooming products of McLeans and Beechams of the Great West Road (now part of GlaxoSmithKline); innovative 18C nursery gardeners in West London who nurtured pineapples, pears and elm trees.

west london history conferencewest london history conferencewest london history conferencewest london history conferencewest london history conference

My favourite was Price’s candles. We take candles for granted, today they are fripperies. But not so long ago, except for open hearth fires, they were our only source of artificial light. Beeswax candles we all know about. But it was interesting to discover how the 19C chemists at Price’s went to enormous lengths to find alternatives to the stinky and cheaper tallow-based models. Now I feel educated on the topic.

At just £8 for a full day’s worth of fascinating local history, this is terrific value. We congratulate the organisers for a fabulous conference and look forward to next year.

Read Full Post »