Category Archives: Archaeology

Secret London: more streets beneath London streets

A fascinating, I think anyway, footnote to my previous post about the secret streets beneath London comes courtesy of reader Steve Lloyd.  Although it may raise more questions that it answers.

Steve worked at shoe shop Lilley & Skinner in the early 1980s and thinks the abandoned Victorian shops beneath Selfridges as seen at around 31 minutes in Malcolm McLaren’s The Ghosts of Oxford Street, may have been located in their basement. I’ll let Steve take up the story.

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‘In the early 80s I was manager of Lilley & Skinner at 356-360 Oxford Street (the largest shoe store in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records). The staff entrance to the store was at the rear along Barrett Street. Here was a short driveway downhill into the building where I used to park.Also situated here was the maintenance department and adjacent was a concrete staircase which led down to several lower levels that were really no more than cellars. The lads in maintenance had told me about the ‘old street’ that was down there and took me down one day to have  to have a look.

Though of course very interesting there was not a lot to see, just a bit of old shop front under some arches and some cobbled street. The lads said that the council had put a preservation order on it and that we weren’t allowed to use the space in any way.

I found some stills from The Ghosts of Oxford Street a couple of years ago after I saw it discussed on this forum and I have to say that they are exactly how I remember the site at Lilley & Skinner.

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The first is one of the arches and the second is the piece of shop front and window frame. Entering the right of the store from Oxford Street you’d go downstairs to the Mens department on the lower ground floor and then there was another department (Tall and Small) at lower lower ground floor, which was on the left hand side of the building. Our secret street was a couple of levels down from that.’
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So there we go. Is this the true location of the secret street beneath Oxford Street? Does it really have a preservation order from the council? And if so, does it still exist? The site at 360 Oxford Street, incidentally, is now a branch of Forever 21.
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Secret London: streets beneath streets of London

Paul, the librarian at Time Out, first told me about the street beneath Charing Cross Road in around 2005. He promised to show it to me, but never did.

Then, last month, I saw it. I was mooching around Cambridge Circus, noting the loss of London’s best-named book shop, Lovejoys, a landmark from the time I used to be a dedicated fanzine-browser across the road at Sportpages, also since departed. I had always assumed Lovejoys was a wittily named Soho porn shop, but it actually stocked cheap classics and DVDs. The shop taking over the site will be a sex shop it seems, albeit of the modern, seedless, air-brushed, air-conditioned variety rather than Soho’s traditional damp basement. With the erasure of any trace of character at the arse-end of Berwick Street, the old Soho sex shop is nearly gone. Indeed, much of this post is about things that have removed, including Paul the librarian, who left Time Out shortly before I did.

As I crossed Charing Cross Road from Soho and stood on an island in the middle of the road waiting for a No 24 bus to pass, I happened to look into the grille beneath my feet. I have instinctive curiosity when it comes to London holes but this is the first time I’ve really seen anything of interest, as, to my surprise, I could make out what appeared to be a subterranean street sign set into the wall a few feet below the ground.

IMG_1992I leaned in closer and there they were – not one, but two street signs for Little Compton Street, one blue enamel and the other painted on to brick. Here was London’s buried street.

IMG_1990Although Little Compton Street has its own Wikipedia page, it is not entirely clear how the signs got here. The street itself was obliterated by the construction of Charing Cross Road – here you can see Little Compton Street on an old map of 1868, intersecting with Crown Street (which is marked by green as Soho’s border, though surely red would be more appropriate) just before Cambridge Circus. Little Compton Street ceased to exist in around 1896 and is now part of the Cambridge Circus utility tunnels, which some urban explorers write about here. (Apparently, Rimbaud and Verlaine used to drink in a pub on Little Compton Street during their dramatic London stay.)

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Were the underground signs accidentally left behind when Charing Cross Road was run roughshod over the top of Crown Street or was it a careful act of preservation by an unnaturally thoughtful council? Or were they removed from a wall by unknown hand and deliberately placed down here, where Little Compton Street has existed ever since, entombed beneath London feet and offering a tantalising glimpse of those fantasy Londons from countless dreams and dramas. There’s an echo of China Mieville, Neil Gaiman and the Borribles, but also of Malcolm McLaren’s mysterious and misremembered subterranean Victorian road (neatly discussed here) that is said to exist intact beneath Selfridges on Oxford Street.

One wonders whether the brutal Crossrail redevelopment of this bedraggled part of the West End will allow any such traces to remain. I hope so. And I hope they also have this last-gasp, accidental feel, of something that London can’t quite let go, like dying fingernails clawing a wall, leaving behind a ghost, a whisper, of one of London’s many pasts.

For some great old images of Charing Cross Road, browse here with leisure and a little sadness.

Secret London: torture at the Temple

In some parts of London you can travel in space as well as time. Take the Temple. This characterful cluster of medieval buildings, gardens, courts and alleys wedged between Fleet Street and the Thames seems to have been uprooted from an Oxbridge college and dropped brick-for-brick in central London, just a heartbeat from the Embankment.

The Temple is a maze of cobbled paths and narrow arched doorways leading to small courtyards that have names like Pump Court and King’s Bench Walk. Most of the buildings are offices occupied by lawyers – this is London’s legal quarter, where barristers receive their training – but the area is also popular with tourists, who have found their way into this most secluded spot. They are here to see the Temple Church, one of London’s oldest churches and, with its distinctive circular nave, also one of the most atmospheric. It’s a building that exudes medieval mystery, and rightly so. Temple Church was founded by one of the world’s most intriguing secret societies, and continues to exude a curious, almost sinister vibe, a feeling that there is more to the Temple than meets the eye.

Even those who know the place well can sense the mood. ‘Buildings have memories,’ says Oliver the verger. ‘And this building has seen some turbulent times.’ Oliver is an intense young man who holds the keys to the secret parts of Temple Church. But that must wait. First, he offers a potted history, one that explains why the Temple is off the beaten track but very much on the tourist trail.

The great London writer HV Morton wrote in 1951 that ‘The Temple brings into the heart of a great city the peace of some ancient university town and the dignity of a past age’, and although the Temple area is redolent of Oxbridge its holy centrepiece is actually a stand-in for a more distant city. The Temple Church was built by the Knights Templars in the twelfth century. The Templars were a holy order formed in 1118 to protect European pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Their base in Jerusalem was supposed to be the site of the Temple of Solomon, so the warrior-monks became known as the Knights Of The Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem, soon shortened to Knights Templars. The Knights Templars had churches and land all over Europe. In London they settled in Holborn but moved nearer the river in 1162, where they built the church. This great round edifice, the New Temple, was consecrated in 1185. Its circular nave paid direct homage to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the idea being that Londoners could visit Jerusalem without leaving the city. Such symbolism was easily grasped by medieval worshippers, who understood how one place could represent another and how the present could fold into the past.

The Knights Templars’ management of the routes in and out of the Middle East soon brought them great wealth, with which came great power, with which came great enemies. Rumours – started by rivals in other religious orders and the nobility – began to spread of their nefarious conduct, and of their sacrilegious and obscene initiation ceremonies, which took place on sacred ground, in London’s case in the crypt beneath the church. It was said that members spat on the cross, worshipped cats and practised ‘unnatural vice’ with each together. As hostility heightened, the end was inevitable and bloody. Phillip IV of France, who, coincidentally no doubt, was heavily in debt to the order, arrested leading French Templars in 1307 and through torture and imprisonment, gained lurid confessions about their immoral conduct. The order was dissolved in 1312.

Although the end for English Templars was not quite so brutal, the abrupt dissolution of the order – and the rumours that surrounded it – has provided fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. Some argue that the Templars were abolished because they knew more about the origins of the organised church than they should, others claimed that the Templars did not disappear, but were merely pushed underground and continue to operate to this day as a clandestine force that shape the world order. Novelist Dan Brown seized on versions of these myths for his blockbuster ‘The Da Vinci Code’, and, having done his research, settled on Temple Church as a suitably spooky location for some key aspects of the action.

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Brown was doubtless drawn by the dominant feature of the church, the ten statues of knights that lie on their backs on the floor in the centre of the circular nave. These stone effigies of dead Templars are frozen in time like Neolithic humans dredged from a peat bog. Despite having lain here since the twelfth century (one, commemorating Geoffrey De Mandeville, is dated 1144 making it older than the church itself; it is said to be here, because no other church would bury him), some have sharp, fine feature, while others have faces melted by German incendiary bombs. All look like they are covering something, perhaps an opening to a secret chamber. They certainly appear to serve some function greater than mere decoration. When you stand in the airless centre of this strange church, looking at this ancient stonework, you can feel the clammy arm of history encircling you. For centuries, Londoners and travellers will have stood at this spot, and bar some cosmetic changes – the church has been refurbished three times, by Christopher Wren, by the ever-busy Victorians and after the Second World War – will have gazed upon the same sight. Nothing has changed.

Oliver the verger interrupts my reverie with some subtle key jangling. We head over to a small door, which he unlocks to reveal a spiral stone staircase. We are seeking the penitential cell. This is where the Master of the Temple – the gloriously authoritarian title given to the church’s head priest – used to punish the unholy. The unfortunate Walter Bachelor was left to starve to death in the penitential cell after disobeying the Master, which is a particularly serious form of penance  as you can’t really repent after you are dead. The cell is halfway up the stairs and now has the appearance of a broom cupboard. It’s tall, but narrow, so a man can stand but not lie flat. Most disturbingly, it has windows overlooking the interior of the church, so those sentenced to starve could look down upon the statues of the crusaders, who would bear silent witness to the suffering taking place above. When we talk of a punishment being medieval, this is what we mean.

Oliver does not enjoy talking about the penitential cell, understandably uncomfortable with such ugly things occurring in the place he has to work every day. He also maintains a theological distance. He says this cruel punishment must have been a Templar thing, nothing to do with the organised church of the time. The Templars, it seems, are destined to play the role of scapegoats for centuries to come.

Oliver and the current Master, though, are happy to play the Templar connection to their advantage when it suits. Dan Brown’s novel brought unprecedented interest in their church, and the Temple suddenly became a hit on the tourist circuit. The Master wrote a book debunking the myths and generally tapped into the new-found interest. Now ‘The Da Vinci Code’ fever has worn off, but the Church has stayed in travel guides on its own merits, remaining a must-see for tourists from all over the world. Here they learn about the Temple Church’s history after the order was dissolved. After passing into the hands of the crown, the surrounding Templar land was given to barristers in 1608. They had begun to locate here from around the fifteenth century. After receiving the land rent-free, the barristers agreed to maintain the church and the Master in perpetuity. The most colourful example of them protecting the church occurred in 1678 during an outbreak of fire. The junior barristers quelled the flames with beer; it took six years for them to settle the brewer’s bill.

In preparation for the arrival of the day’s first tourists – and some are already milling outside waiting for their chance to snoop the ancient masonry – Oliver throws open the vast West Door. This huge arched door opens on to an easily overlooked alleyway, on the opposite side of the church to the large square that fronts the main entrance. It is a magnificent piece, thick regal wood surrounded by an arch of elaborate carved stonework. Nobody knows its age, although Oliver points out that some of the faded figures are wearing buttons, which were supposedly unheard of in Britain before the fourteenth century as they were associated with Muslims, the very foe the Templars were formed to fight.

Standing in this quiet spot round the back of the aged church staring at a door that by implication if not construction dates back to the twelfth century, it is easy to feel that you have slipped through time. One London writer, James Bone, said in 1919 that ‘At Temple, you are as close as an echo to the past’. Here, the echo resounds loudest and longest.

Exploring the lost Lea Valley with Saint Etienne

The BFI have just released a fantastic DVD for London fans. A London Trilogy: The Films Of Saint Etienne collects the three documentaries Saint Etienne and director Paul Kelly made between 2003 and 2007. Finisterre, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? and This Is Tomorrow are three fine oblique celebrations/meditations of London esoterica, soundtracked by the band and also guided philosophically by band member and London nerd Bob Stanley (who once beat me in a London quiz with his excellently named team of ringers, The London Nobody Knows, the bastard).

As ever with the BFI, the extras are also superb, including a short film about the then little-known Banksy, three eulogies to lost London cafes and a piece about Monty The Lamb, North Hendon FC’s club mascot.

My favourite of the three main features is 2005’s What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, which tours the Lower Lea Valley, a then almost abandoned part of London that has since been covered by the Olympic Park. In 2007, I took a tour of the valley with Kieron Tyler, an archaeologist at the Museum of London who also happens to be a regular collaborator with Stanley and Saint Etienne. Here is what we found.

I’ve often wondered where the East End begins, but never realised there was an actual border: one that’s so physical, and so weird. The River Lea (or Lee – both are acceptable) rises in Luton and flows into London at Edmonton and then, via Hackney, Stratford and Bromley-by-Bow, into the Thames. It has been the municipal boundary between Essex and Middlesex since the sixth century. ‘When you’re on the Middlesex side, you’re in the City of London, and when you’re on the Essex side, you’re east of London,’ Kieron Tyler explains helpfully. Tyler is the Museum of London archaeologist responsible for assessing the archaeological potential of the 2012 Olympic site, large swathes of which straddle the Lea Valley. As a committed Londonist, he’s become fascinated by one of the capital’s oddest landscapes.

You see, the Lea is more than just a theoretical dividing line on an administrative map, it’s a deep, wide trench gauging out a huge chunk of prime London land and bordered on either side by reclaimed marsh, Victorian rubbish heaps and industrial wasteland that physically separate the communities on either side. Look at a map if you don’t believe me. The Lea Valley boasts that ‘A-Z’ rarity, actual blank space, spotted with grey squares and circles that are precise in form but vague in utility, listed only as ‘works’, ‘depot’ or ‘warehouse’. All roads over the valley are fast and functional, crossing as quickly as possible, unwelcoming to residents. It’s a no man’s land in which few Londoners live, or ever have.

‘It’s the whole nature and character of the Lea Valley itself,’ says Tyler. ‘The area either side of the banks has acted as a buffer zone, stopping development. Before the ice age, this entire area was a water-filled valley. As the tide level changed the water become marsh with water channels snaking through it. Looking at evidence from between the end of the last ice age to the early medieval era (the eleventh century), we can see the Lea stretching from Stratford Town Centre to Hackney Wick, with marsh all around. Marsh is a problem. You can’t build on marsh. You can graze cows on it, or grow plants, but you can’t build on it. That’s why the Lea Valley itself is a buffer, wider than the river itself.’

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We take the 308 bus from Stratford tube to New Spitalfields Market on the A12, a bleak block of urbanity that makes the North Circular look like the Cotswolds, and stroll down Quarter Mile Lane – a piece of gleaming new roadwork that, like a Sicilian motorway, ends abruptly, having gone nowhere – into Eastway Cycle Circuit. Buried somewhere on this meadow are the remains of Temple Mill, a thirteenth-century mill managed by the Knights Templar. The mill is one of many things lost in the mud, dumped on by successive generations who used the marsh as a rubbish tip (bits of the Euston Arch were chucked in the Lea in the 1960s), which Tyler hopes to uncover when work on the Olympics site begins.

One such buried treasure is the Lea’s first bridge. ‘Nobody knows how the Lea was first crossed,’ says Tyler. ‘The Roman London-Colchester road came up to the edge of the Lea Valley around Wick Lane and picks up on the other side, but we haven’t a clue exactly where and how they crossed.’

We do know that the focus for crossing the Lea moved south, with the construction of Stratford Langthorne Abbey in 1135, now covered by factories, railways and a sewage-pumping station. This bridge was called Queen Matilda’s Crossing after the yarn that it was built at the behest of the wife of Henry I, who almost drowned while trying to cross the old ford. It was the first stone arch bridge in Britain, and was called Bow Bridge because of its shape – a name that later lent itself to the area on the Middlesex side, Stratford-by-Bow, now shortened to Bow.

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The Lea isn’t the only river in the valley. Half-a-dozen other ditches, streams and rivulets snake through it. Tyler guides me, via the doomed Eastway Cycle Circuit, to Hennikers Ditch, a medieval drainage ditch that’s little more than a hollowed-out puddle. We cut right, through dense foilage – Japanese knotweed, the most invasive plant around – and join a rarely trod path along the bank of the sluggish Channelsea River, a stream supposedly dug by King Alfred to keep the Danes from sacking London that has been dated to the eleventh century. Within minutes, we’ve gone from the concrete Ballard-scape of the A12 to an otherwordly, overgrown terrain that Tyler suggests lacks only Ray Harryhausen’s jerky dinosaurs to give it that proper prehistoric appearance. Allotments overlook the stream, and Tyler points out one tumbledown shed that his team have identified as a World War II pillbox. The Channelsea is still fulfilling its original function of defending London from invasion.

After peering through a fence that guards the new Eurostar terminal at Stratford, we head back to the A12 and cross the Lea, via torturous means (the Valley is as hard to navigate as it ever was), to wander down the weird Waterden Road, an alienating thoroughfare that features the Kokonut Groove Nite Klub, a demolished greyhound stadium, a bus depot, an ‘International Christian Centre’ and a travellers’ site. There’s no sense of the famed East End community here; indeed, it’s hard to think of a more disconnected environment outside an American strip mall.

At the bottom, Waterden Road meets White Post Lane, crossing the Lee Navigation (spelling decreed by a 1570 Act of Parliament), a canalised section of the river that runs almost parallel to the Lea that was built in stages from the eighteenth century. With its arrival, the Valley became a centre for industry.

As the lost Temple Mill shows, mills have been located here for centuries. There’s Three Mills, recently the location of the ‘Big Brother’ house, and Wright’s flour mill, London’s last working independent mill. Slaughterhouses crossed the Lea after being banished from the City in the fourteenth century, and the remains of animals were used in a variety of Lea-side industries. Walls Matteson churned out sausages by the yard at Abbey Mills until the 1990s and animal bones were used for china, chemicals, candles, soap, glues and fertilisers. Chemicals for tanning skins came from Lea and it’s said the smell was so bad that, in the early seventeenth century, James I asked for work at the mill to stop before he travelled past. Not for nothing was it known as ‘stinky Stratford’. The ‘ready-made kebab’ factory at the bottom of Waterden Road seems aptly placed.

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Heavier industry soon moved in, boosted by an 1844 Act of Parliament that ruled that, within London, ‘offensive trades’ could not be located within 50 feet of a house. The Lea’s industrial alumni is formidable. Matchbox cars were made here until the 1980s. The diode valve was invented in Lea by Professor Ambrose Fleming in 1904, which led directly to the invention of the wireless; Britain’s first radio valve factory was established in Lea Valley in 1916, and the first television tube factory followed in 1936. Bryant and May had a match-making factory in Newham, which was the site of the landmark matchgirls strike in 1888. Monorail was invented in Lea in 1821. IPA was first brewed on the Bow riverbanks in the 1780s. The Yardley soap factory was on Carpenter’s Road, and the Lea is where the first British commercially successful porcelain, Bow China, was produced. AV Roe became the first Briton to pilot an entirely British-built aircraft on Walthamstow Marsh in 1909.

The Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield produced the British Army’s Lee-Enfield rifle by the thousand (though unfortunately the Lee bit comes from its inventor, not the location), and also helped with the development of the bouncing bomb.It’s a rich history that, in a most un-London way, is celebrated by approximately nobody (although Saint Etienne’s film on the Lea Valley, What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? captured much of the weirdness). We’re at the junction of White Post Lane, Wallis Road and Hepscott Road, which, Tyler points out, is the location of ‘a conglomeration of late Victorian industrial concerns that either introduced a number of products to this country or were invented here or recast in their modern form’.

He’s talking about plastic, petrol and dry-cleaning, which all came from here. Carless, Capel and Leonard started making a product they named petrol in Hackney Wick in 1892. Before then it was called ‘unrefined petroleum’ and competitors continued to call it ‘motor spirit’ until the 1930s. A few years previously, Alexander Parkes had been manufacturing a celluloid based on nitrocellulose with ethanol solvent that he uneffacingly named Parkesine, but which we now call plastic. And in the 1860s Frenchman Achille Serre introduced dry-cleaning to the UK, setting up a chain that lasted a century until it was bought out by Sketchleys.

It’s only as we reach Hackney Wick station that I realise we’ve not seen the Lea itself, though Tyler points out we crossed it while negotiating the A12. The river is more accessible elsewhere along its long slide through London, but it forms only a tiny part of the appeal of the Lea Valley, a glorious scrap of London that will change forever with the Olympics. With it, one fancies, the barrier between London and the East End may become a little less precise, and a lot less interesting.

Secret London: inside Wapping’s abandoned Tobacco Dock

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It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was the mid-1980s, the economy was booming and Docklands was on the up. Tobacco Dock, an old Grade I-listed warehouse off East Smithfield in Wapping, seemed ripe for redevelopment. Rupert Murdoch had just moved New International next door from Fleet Street, and other companies were sure to follow. What better place to build the new Covent Garden, a lively hub of shops, bars and restaurants, where City fatcats and Wapping yuppies could mingle and spend?

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Terry Farrell did the architecture and Tobacco Dock opened in 1989, an elegant conversion that featured two arcades of shops on two floors inside a skilfully modernised structure that retained its Victorian industrial integrity. A canal provided a classy terrace for restaurants and bars, while the shops were the best of the era: Saab City, Next, Body Shop, Cobra and Monsoon as well as Justfacts, a shop selling accessories for your Filofax, and Uneasy, a shop that sold designer chairs. Think Broadgate Circus. Think Leadenhall Market. Think Hay’s Galleria. Here was the future. What could possibly go wrong?

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Even before Tobacco Dock opened, the UK economy was in recession and one-by-one, the new shops started to disappear. No new companies followed News International, and with poor transport links and a tanking economy, the yuppie money from Wapping’s riverside apartments could not keep the shops alive. By 1995, Tobacco Dock was already a shell, with just two trading outlets, a restaurant called Henry’s and a sandwich bar, both kept afloat by Murdoch’s minions, of which I was one.

Ten years later, just the sandwich bar remained; now that too is gone. Tobacco Dock is completely empty, a ghost shopping centre forever frozen in 1989, when the world was at its feet. Come here, and you can smell the late-80s ambition and the disappointment and failure when it all started to unwind. It’s like the backdrop to a George Romero zombie film, or a metaphor for rampant commercialism wrapped in the setting of a failed shopping centre.

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Bizarrely, the empty centre remains impeccably maintained and open to the public. I spent happy hours in Henry’s when I worked at The Sunday Times in the 1990s and remember even then how strange it felt to march through the vacant complex, serenaded by mood music piped through the PA. When I returned a couple of years ago in search of nostalgia, there was only silence, broken by the sound of my footsteps echoing round the empty chamber, but the floors were still as clean and the fixtures and fittings as freshly painted as when it first opened.

Rows of disused shops lined the central avenue like glass coffins, some still bearing the names of the shops that once operated here. Frank And Stein’s, the sandwich shop that held out longest like a Japanese soldier still fighting the Second World War twenty years after it ended, kept its sign and counter but the door was shackled by a heavy chain. The eviction notice posted in the window a public sign of private tragedy.

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At the back of Tobacco Dock is a pretty canal, featuring a couple of tall ships that were intended for kids to clamber on while their parents ate at nearby restaurants. One such restaurant, an American diner called Peppermint Park, looked recently abandoned but had been empty for years. The week’s specials were still chalked up on the blackboard, but the interior was barren, holes in the wall indicating that these surfaces were once covered by a mass of Americana memorabilia which now probably line the walls of the nearest branch of TGI Fridays. Here too were three faded posters, celebrating ‘Tobacco Dock – The New Heart Of London’, instantly evoking the lost mood of optimism. One of the posters was illustrated by a map, which in a cartographical display of wishful thinking, placed Tobacco Dock squarely in the centre of a buzzing quarter surrounded by the Design Museum, St Katharines Dock, Petticoat Lane and just off-scene, suggested by a tantalising arrow, the myriad delights of Greenwich. Along the bottom of each poster runs a legend, a promise of what lay within: ‘Unique quality shops – Pirate ships – Restaurants – Bars – Entertainments – History’. Well, it’s certainly history. One out of six ain’t bad.

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Footnote: I wrote this piece in 2010, since which time Tobacco Dock has started to open for occasional private events. 

 

Wellcome to London: how Henry Wellcome ‘hoovered up the world’ and left it on the Euston Road

Wisconsin, 1858. A five-year-old boy is playing near his frontier home when a strange stone catches his eye. He takes it to his father, who examines the flint carefully before deciding that it was a prehistoric tool made thousands of years before to cut meat. It probably meant as much to its creator as the railway did to modern humans. ‘That excited my imagination and never was forgotten,’ wrote Henry Wellcome years later, after he had grown up, moved to London and accumulated one of the largest collections of scientific paraphernalia that has ever been gathered by a single individual.

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Wellcome established his pharmaceutical company, Wellcome-Burroughs, in 1880, making a mint selling pills to an English public that had previously taken medicine in the form of powder or syrup. This fortune sits in the Wellcome Trust, which was established 76 years ago and is now worth £14 billion, making it one of the world’s largest charitable foundations. Next door to the Wellcome Trust HQ on Euston Road, a short walk from St Pancras, sits the Wellcome Collection, a museum that houses some of the million or so objects collected by Wellcome in his lifetime. Here is Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush, ancient sex aids, Chinese torture chairs lined with blades, boxes of false eyes, human skeletons and paintings by Van Gogh. It is one of the most extraordinary collections in the world, a throwback to a time when wealthy individuals would hoover up the weird and wonderful of the world for their personal collections, but executed on a scale few could compete with.

Ken Arnold is the Wellcome’s Head of Public Programmes. ‘This is the last great non-connoisseurs collection,’ he says. ‘Our usual concept of a collector is somebody who carefully decides whether something is authentic and then forks out a huge amount of money for it. Wellcome had an “other-end-of-the-telescope” approach. He saw everything through medical-tinted spectacles and wanted to own anything that would illuminate that fascination.’

Wellcome collected everything: paintings, engravings, photographs, models, sculptures, manuscripts, books, periodicals, pamphlets, letters, prescriptions, diplomas, medical instruments, archaeological finds, skeletons, skin, hospital equipment, advertisements, drugs, remedies, food, plants, microscope slides, charms, amulets, ceremonial paraphernalia, costumes, medals, coins and furniture. He bought entire shops, contents, fixtures and fittings, acquiring enough to recreate an entire street. He bought others collections, picked up human skulls from African battlefields and returned from one typical trip abroad with 44 packing cases of material. If something wasn’t available, he had an artist make a reproduction. Teams of buyers were finding him items right up until his death in 1936. His reach was broad and their brief was wide.

‘Wellcome had deep pockets and no bureaucrats telling him what he could bring home so he had none of our moral, financial or logistical concerns,’ says Arnold. ‘He hoovered up the world, and left us with this extraordinarily unwieldy and undisciplined collection.’ Although Wellcome amassed an immense collection, he was frugal with his money. ‘He was very wealthy, but he would send employees to auctions dressed down so they didn’t look too rich, and would set up fake companies so people wouldn’t know it was his money,’ says Ross MacFarlane, research officer at the Wellcome Library.

A chippy self-made American, Wellcome could never become part of the British establishment – although he was awarded both a knighthood and the French Legion d’honneur – and a desire to be taken seriously may have prompted his determination to create a museum of ‘the art and science and healing’. This opened in 1913 in South Kensington, before it moved to Wigmore Street and closing in 1932. When Wellcome died, the collection was put into storage or dispersed.

‘The British Museum has 40,000 objects, the Science Museum has more than 100,000, the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford has 30,000 items and there are bits in almost every museum in the UK,’ says Arnold. The Wellcome Trust has since taken a similarly philanthropic approach, funding wings in numerous UK museums, galleries and academic institutions.

In 2007, the Wellcome Collection opened. It is a modern, classy space, with a cafe and bookshop, as well as a gallery that hosts thought-provoking exhibitions that use art and science to explore topics such as Skin, Sleep and Brains. Their next exhibition, Death, promises to be particularly fascinating and challenging.

The Wellcome dares to be different: while most museums take an unfamiliar topic and wring all the knowledge out of it like a damp dishcloth, the Wellcome looks at something familiar and turns it inside out, using contemporary art and scientific research to make visitors question what they think they already implicitly understand. Their ability to do this can be traced back to Henry Wellcome himself.

‘We feel free to interpret the material Wellcome collected,’ says MacFarlane. ‘Because although we know when something was bought and what it cost, we don’t always know how it got to the auction.’ Arnold expands on this: ‘He didn’t talk about his philosophy. There’s enough to get an idea of why he was collecting, but there’s not so much that we feel we have to conform to his beliefs. He once said ‘Never tell anybody what you are planning to do until you have done it.’ That sounds like a good idea to me…’

So the Wellcome eschews blockbuster shows – which Arnold describes as ‘a depressingly greedy way to conduct exhibitions’ – and takes pride in imaginative live events. ‘We never try to be definitive,’ says Arnold. ‘There’s always more to discover. And we don’t want to be po-faced. Science is either deadly serious or fun with pink fluffy letters – and between these two unpalatable positions is a yawning chasm that can be filled with smart and sophisticated entertainment.’

Of course, the Wellcome is helped by having a lot of money in its coffers. ‘We are much more privileged that most other organisations. We are wealthy and we don’t have to satisfy civil servants, corporate sponsors or shareholders. But that attitude comes from the Wellcome Trust itself: science is a risk-taking business and there is a sense we are allowed to be experimental.’

MacFarlane finishes that thought, ‘When we take the directors an idea, they’ll often want to give it a go, and that’s a bit like how Wellcome collected. It’s a great position to be in.’

Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. Admission free. The Wellcome’s next exhibition is Death, from November 15. 

Secret London: the mystery of London’s World War II railings

I recently received this email:

‘Stumbled across your blog recently and wondered if you’d be interested in doing a bit of digging to find out what happened to London’s railings.

During WWII there was a national scrap drive especially active in London where a lot of railings were grubbed up and sent off to be scrapped. I have never been able to find out what really happened with this pre-emptive move to destroy London before the Luftwaffe but it seems that program was more of a public relations exercise rather than of any practical use and the railings were dumped.
I have heard tell of them being dumped in the Thames and being used as ballast for ships leaving the Port of London. It is said that seaport buildings in Guyana and Nigeria still sport rather nice Georgian railings.’
And that was it. In truth, I know little about London railings (image below from Knowledge Of London). I’d also heard the story that were used for scrap metal in the war, and was also aware that in Harleyford Street, SE11, some ARP stretchers used during the war to ferry casualties away from bombsites had been turned into railings (you can see a glimpse of them in Patrick Keiller’s London and they also feature in Peter Ashley’s excellent More London Peculiars).
So I turned to my dog-eared copy of London Street Furniture, which wasn’t much help. ‘Doubtless, railings have their devotees,’ I read. ‘The authors may be nerds, but this is one items of street furniture that even they cannot get excited about.’
Oh.
The section continues: ‘When we were children we heard all about the drive to uproot railings to produce scrap iron to assist the war effort in the early 1940s. We suspect that railings were seized and removed more keenly from working-class districts than from the fronts of the houses of people who had wealth and social and political clout.
Removing railings in WW2 (Imperial War Museum)
I’m not sure this is true, as I have read that railings were removed from many garden squares, making them suddenly accessible to the public (indeed, that is what is happening in the image above).
That the railings were removed is beyond doubt. Here is a typical quote from somebody who had their railings removed during the war, taken from the BBC’s People’s War site.
They took away our railings. Men came and cut the ornamental railing from the copings on the little walls outside of the houses, along the whole length of the road, they were taken away to be melted down to make weapons.
But did they really get melted down? A quick scour of the internet produces this interesting nugget from a WWII forum. It is a letter from 1984 to the Evening Standard and says in full:
I was interested in your item about the railings which are to be replaced in Ennismore Gardens. The tragedy is that so many of London’s railings were pulled down in order to support Britain’s war effort, bearing in mind that they never became the guns and tanks they were intended for.
In fact I believe that many hundreds of tons of scrap iron and ornamental railings were sent to the bottom in the Thames Estuary because Britain was unable to process this ironwork into weapons of war.
Christopher Long Earl’s Court Square, Earl’s Court,
London SW5.
The forum correspondent goes on to add: ‘This information came from dockers in Canning Town in 1978 who had worked during the war on ‘lighters’ that were towed down the Thames estuary to dump vast quantities of scrap metal and decorative ironwork. They claimed that so much was dumped at certain spots in the estuary that ships passing the area needed pilots to guide them because their compasses were so strongly affected by the quantity of iron on the sea-bed.’
A great story, but is it true? If anybody can say for sure, please do let us know.
UPDATE: The fine Johnny L, a noted nerd and jazz lover, points us towards this documentary by Jonathan Meades about Victorian houses.

Meades begins talking about railings after 4min 40secs. At 5min 30 secs he reports:

There aren’t many railings left now in London. This is because in 1940 there were ripped up as part of the war effort. It may have been a morale booster, but it was impractical – the stuff was never melted down and was thrown into the Thames rather unceremoniously off Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey. The stuff’s still there.’

Secret London: the Temple of Mithras goes back where it came from

The Temple of Mithras is one of London’s most easily viewed and best known Roman sites, but it is also one of its crappest. The temple has been in the wrong place pretty much ever since it was discovered 50 years ago and now sits unimpressively in a bed of a concrete in front of a banal office building in the City (image below from Knowledge Of London).

The Temple of Mithras: ‘crap’

All that is about to change. Next week, Museum of London Archaeology will begin a three year project that will put the Temple back where it belongs, and restore it to something closer to its original form. They will also do a little digging, to see what else they can discover.

The Temple – a shrine to an Iranian god who was said to have killed a mythical bull – was found by archaeologist WF Grimes  in 1952 on Walbrook. The cult was adopted by the Romans in 1 AD and the temple – probably built in around 250 AD – would originally have been a subterranean space where bulls were sacrificed. Archeologists had suspected there was Mithran temple in London since 1889, after the discovery in Walbrook of a relief depicting the god killing a bull but it was only uncovered after the Second World War, when the area suffered heavy bomb damage and became ripe for development.

A statue of Mithras were found buried beneath the temple, and it may well have later been used by followers of Bacchus, as Mithraism went into decline. Mithraism is sometimes seen as a precursor to Christianity, although I don’t know enough about that to possibly comment.

The temple was dismantled shortly after it was discovered so the construction of Bucklersbury House could continue. The material was put into storage and many of the statues loaned to the Museum of London. In 1962, the temple was reconstructed on Queen Victoria Street, 90 metres from its original site at ground level, embedded in the courtyard of a City office block. It was a particularly dismal and unsympathetic treatment of a genuine archaeological curiosity. Most people had no idea what it was, and even if they did, it was very hard to care.

The site is now owned by Bloomberg, and they are about to start dismantling the temple by removing it from the cement that currently encases it, and then reconstructing it on its original site in what they call ‘a purpose-built and publicly accessible interpretation space within their new building’. This will take three years, but many will rejoice that it is happening at all.

Secret London: Brixton’s Windmill

I finally got round to visiting Brixton Windmill during Open House Weekend. I first heard about the windmill ten years or so again, when I would go to gigs at the Windmill pub and pop out between acts to try to catch a glimpse of this extraordinary building in the nearby park, lost and derelict like an abandoned spaceship.

The windmill was built in 1816 and run by John Ashby of Brixton Hall. It was originally on a hill in fields, surrounded by outbuildings like a mill cottage and bake house, where bread was baked with the mill’s stone-ground wholemeal flour and sold to locals.

By the 1850s, Brixton was starting to grow and new housing blocked the wind, hampering performance. In 1862, the Ashby’s took their milling business to the Mitcham watermills along the Wandle, but the Brixton Windmill somehow remained, used for storage. The sails, though, were removed and sold for firewood.

In 1902, the windmill was returned to use, albeit as a location for a steam-powered provender mill. The mill was finally closed in 1934 and left empty until the LCC purchased it in 1957, after at least one attempt had been made to demolish it and cover the site with flats. Despite the sails being restored in 1983, the windmill, now owned by Lambeth, was allowed to run almost to ruin, which is how it appeared when I first saw it.

Since then, a major restoration project has taken place and the windmill is now open again to the public around once a month. The Friends of Windmill Gardens, a local residents association, also hope to start grinding flour again, using the provender mill that still survives on the first floor.

In celebration, here are the Fuck Buttons playing at the Brixton Windmill pub.

London’s mapping renaissance

The growth of online mapping – as seen by the excellent London Mapping website, which collects some of the best digital maps around – has not meant the end of paper maps.

Image of Untamed London

I’ve mentioned Herb Lester‘s lovely themed maps before with reference to their 1960s map of London’s West End, Wish You Were There, and they continue to add new maps to their range, branching into different cities and themes while maintaining an impeccable eye for design. Untamed London, for nature-lovers, is their latest offering.

I’ve also finally got my hands on the Museum of London’s Londonium map and it is hugely impressive. This has been produced by MOLAS, the Museum of London Archeological Service, and is a huge map of the City, with the Roman topography superimposed over a plan of the contemporary city – a little like a paper version of the technology used for the Time Travel Explorer app.

Key Roman finds are listed, with an explanation of what they are and how they can be accessed, while the reverse side has a potted history of Roman London, with many illustrations. The map is printed on good thick paper so won’t tear easily (a constant problem for frequently folded paper maps), and works beautifully as both a decorative item and a practical plan for hunting down the existing remains of Londonium.

It costs just £6.25 and should it prove to be a big seller – which I imagine it will – I hope the Museum can persuade their friends at MOLA to produce more maps along the same lines.

One for the Olympic Park at around this time next year, perhaps?