Tag Archives: history

Wappingness

This is an edited version of a piece about Wapping  written in 2011.

‘Explore Wapping,’ exhorted Samuel Johnson to Boswell, ‘to see the wonderful extent and variety of London.’ It is fine advice still. Johnson was speaking in the 1790s, when Wapping was London’s principle settlement for sailors, a hive of cobbled streets and damp, narrow alleys that led to the numerous wharves and jetties of riverside London, but his instruction rings true today. Explore Wapping and see how London can demonstrate a seemingly infinite capacity to reinvent itself, how it will welcome newcomers and how it celebrates its past while never neglecting to engage with the future. Few cities have such a knack at looking simultaneously backwards as well as forwards, and few places in London do this better then Wapping. Here, Morrissey explores Wapping landmarks in his 1992 video, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, just as the area was undergoing heavy gentrification.

To understand Wapping try approaching it from St Katherine’s Dock, the pretty riverside development that lies adjacent to the Tower of London. Leave St Katharine Dock at the point where it almost touches the Thames and you will arrive in Wapping at the very western end of Wapping High Street, the charismatic street that runs parallel to the river for the length of the district. Here, on the corner with Kennet Street, is a large stone wall, decorated with icicle-like drips of cement. Inside the wall is a large red brick building, which still proudly wears the emblem of the Port Of London Authority, although this has over time turned the sort of misty green colour you associate with cannons dredged from the ocean floor.

This is the old dock house, a remnant of when Wapping was home to London Docks, and it stands next to Hermitage Basin, one of the few parts of the dock complex not to have been filled with concrete and covered with roads and houses in the 1970s. Hermitage Basin once offered a way for ships from around the world to get from the mammoth London Dock to the Thames, but now it is a sweet little ornamental lake surrounded by houses, and a home itself to a sedate family of regal swans and the odd mallard.

Hermitage Basin is a fine example of what you could call Wappingness: the way Wapping has come to terms with its past, making sensible accommodation with what has been before. This has not been an easy task. Wapping has been battered by change over the centuries, first when the docks were built in 1805, carving great watery holes throughout the neighbourhood and reducing the population of 6,000 by two thirds, and then when they were filled in again in the 1970s, eradicating what had been Wapping’s identity for more than 150 years. The warehouses and docks of Wapping were also heavily targeted by German bombers during the Second World War. But still it prospers.

Signs of Wapping’s maritime heritage are everywhere. Before the docks arrived, it was a place of wharves, jetties, warehouses, boatbuilders, sailmakers, brothels and pubs, having been originally settled by the Saxons and used by London’s sailors for centuries. The building of the docks over reclaimed marshland helped cement these long links with the sea, even if they replaced the bustling village atmosphere with vast warehouses and a more transient population. The London Docks were the closest docks to the City of London, which gave them a significant advantage over those docks that had recently been built on the Isle of Dogs.

In these Wapping warehouses, dockers would unload treasures from right across the British Empire, including tobacco, rum, whalebone, spices, cocoa, coffee, rubber, coconuts, marble and wool. Settlers from overseas lived in Wapping – nearby Limehouse was home to London’s first Chinatown and is now home to a thriving Bangladeshi community – and artists, writers and poets would come to Wapping to glimpse exotica in the form of both the goods brought from overseas and in the working-class men and women who lived and worked in the area. They would then disperse around London and the East End, taking some of the essence of Wapping with them across the Highway into Whitechapel, Spitalfields and beyond. Later still, artists set up studios in the derelict warehouses of Wapping in the 1970s, heralding a trend that soon spread throughout east London.

The chief attraction, of course, was the river, although the Thames itself can only intermittently be glimpsed between the tall warehouses that act almost like a river wall. But stroll round Wapping and you’ll see signs of its maritime history everywhere in the shape of weathered dock walls, converted warehouses and industrial walkways that allow passageway high above the cobbled streets. Here are restaurants and pubs that pay homage to the past, plus a pretty canal that stretches in a narrow strip from Hermitage Basin in the west to Shadwell Basin in the east, offering a slender shadow of the bustling docks that once stood here. Between buildings on Wapping High Street you can see numerous ancient stone stairs, green with age, that lead directly down to the river.

Such is the all-pervasive water-soaked atmosphere that Wapping itself can even feel like something of an island, bordered on three side by the liquid barriers of the Thames, St Katherine’s Dock and Shadwell Basin and with a busy main road, the Highway, to the north, cutting it off from the rest of London. And within this island, there is just as much to explore as there was in Johnson’s time. You can find London’s oldest riverside inn, the grisly site of pirate executions, an abandoned shopping centre, a gorgeous listed church, a power station turned art gallery, a historic foot tunnel, London’s only memorial to the Blitz, a beach that the Beatles posed on, mudlarks searching for Tudor bric-a-brac, Wapping Wood and an escaped tiger. So follow Johnson, explore Wapping, embrace Wappingness.

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Pubs

I’ve only ever really had one local, that is a pub I visited at least once a week for a couple of years. But what a local. Crocker’s Folly was one of London’s best pubs, a beautiful old gin palace, with a stunning saloon bar that featured 50 kinds of marble, Romanesque marble columns, Jacobean ceiling, cut glass, chandeliers and carved mahogany.

The pub even had a great back story. It was built by Frank Crocker in 1889, who got wind that a new station was to open at Marylebone and so placed his extravagant new hotel at what he believed was going to be the perfect location to attract the thousands of travellers. Sadly, the station was constructed half-a-mile  to the south and – it’s said – a ruined Crocker leapt to his pavementy death from one of the upstairs window. (In truth, he died in 1904 of natural causes.)

I used Crocker’s when I lived on the nearby canal at Lisson Grove, popping there for a pint after work, for a quick lunch or long dinner, to watch the football, for a sneaky drink between visits to the launderette, to take part in the pub quiz, to meet friends, to be alone. We had a great landlord and the pub was always full of canal folk and locals, a place you felt welcome, where there was always somebody to talk to or enough room for you to settle down on your own, with a packet of cigarettes, a newspaper and a couple of quid for the fruit machine.

Then, pretty abruptly, things changed. A new landlord was brought in by the owners and you couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing wrong, but it was clearly something. Dodgy kids from nearby estates become more prominent. The quality of ale declined. Less events were held. The food menu got worse. Suddenly, Crocker’s became a little rough – it was no longer the sort of place you’d expect to encounter the annual Christmas party held by national newspaper crossword compilers, as had once been the case in the late 1990s – and so we’d walk past it on our way to other, now better, pubs around Warwick Avenue. That’s the problem with pubs. If they aren’t good enough, there’s always a better one around the corner. Until that one closes as well.

I noticed on one of my last visits to Crocker’s that the door policy had changed to an almost unheard of ‘Over-25s only’. In 2002, shortly before I left the canal behind, it closed.

It’s still closed.

Lord know what Crocker’s looks like inside, even though it is a listed building and being carefully watched by CAMRA members. Last time I passed it was as boarded up as ever, but there is planning permission for flats to be installed in the many upstairs rooms. Work has begun, I’ve heard, but CAMRA do not think a pub is part of that plan. What this means for that astounding ground floor, I do not know.

Crocker’s Folly was a beautiful building, open to all Londoners, serving many needs and creating a community around it, and it’s demise is as great a tragedy as that imagined for its creator, more so because it always felt deliberate, as if the company that owned the pub were opting for managed decline, an excuse to close the pub and find a way to sidestep planning permission so they could sell it to developers. That never happened and so the pub was left to rot, like so many others in London.

If you can stand it, scroll through this amazing Flickr archive of London’s lost pubs. I knew some of these, once.

I’ve written about the threats to London pubs and what can be done to save them in this month’s Metropolitan magazine for Eurostar. 

Opium pipes in London

brochure; pamphlet - Opium Smoking Parlour

In 1899, Earl’s Court offered interested Londoners the chance to pay 6d to see a Hong Kong ‘opium smoking parlour’, filled with ‘living Chinaman’ and ‘true to every detail’. This reflected an ongoing fascination for the Chinese habit of smoking opium – a habit that had been partly encouraged by the British East India Company and then condemned by British missionaries – and merrily ignored the fact the British themselves had been consuming opium for decades.

The Chinese tradition of smoking looked and felt very different though, and that’s partly because it was so deeply ingrained into society, a ritual to be enjoyed alongside tea and nicotine with a rich material culture, lavish paraphernalia and its own customs, traditions and symbolic meaning. This is explored in an extraordinary exhibition of Chinese opium pipes at Maggs Bros bookshop in Berkeley Square, which I have written about for the Independent on Sunday.

It features a unique collection of 19th-century Chinese pipes and related material that demonstrate the full complexity of the Chinese relationship with opium, as can be seen in some of the following images – and these barely scratch the surface of the incredible collection that can be seen at Berkeley Square from June 5 to the end of July.

Field of opium poppies

Field of opium poppies

Jar for storing opium

Jar for storing opium

Chinese opium smoker

Chinese opium smoker

Postcard of opium smoker from Vietnam

Postcard of opium smoker from Vietnam

Bowl for smoking opium

Bowl for smoking opium

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Smoker with pipe and tools Smoker with pipe and tools

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Bowl for opium pipe

Bowl for opium pipe

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Pipes being burnt by anti-opium reformers

Bowl for opium pipe

Bowl for opium pipe

Lamp used for preparing and smoking opium

Lamp used for preparing and smoking opium

Tray for carrying opium tools

Tray for carrying opium tools

Pink pills for pale people - opium cure

Pink pills for pale people – opium cure

Box for storing opium with erotic carving - opium was seen as an aphrodisiac and was originally smoked in brothels

Box for storing opium with erotic carving – opium was seen as an aphrodisiac and was originally smoked in brothels

Bowl for smoking opium

Bowl for smoking opium

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Preparing a pipe

Preparing a pipe

Tools for preparing opium

Tools for preparing opium

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

 

Opium smoker with cat - pets often became addicted to the opium fumes

Opium smoker with cat – pets often became addicted to the opium fumes

150 years of the London Underground

To mark the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, here is a piece I wrote for Time Out in 2007.

It was, on the face of it, a stupid idea. Running trains, and steam trains at that, in tunnels underneath the London streets. In 1862, the Times described it as an ‘insult to common sense’ and it was probably right. But the London Underground turned out to be one of the great engineering feats of modern times, the world’s only steam-driven underground railway and the first electrified underground railway. A socially egalitarian and liberating phenomenon, it helped drive London’s rapid expansion and got people to work on time, while providing the city with a bold new identity through impeccable branding that incorporated iconic typography, cartography and architecture.

And yet… And yet…

It’s fair to say that the Underground remains unloved by Londoners, and it would take a more dishonest contrarian than I to defend the grime, the delays, the heat, the way it’s so busy and unreliable and the fact that, year after year, we are asked to pay more for a service that doesn’t seem to be getting any better, cleaner, quicker or cooler. But that’s a fault of management and decades of underinvestment, not of a system that remains something Londoners should treasure as remarkable, groundbreaking and emphatically ours.

The story began with Charles Pearson, the first in a succession of underground visionaries. It was he who first proposed the notion of ‘trains in drains’ in 1845, when the railway was a relatively new invention (the first steam passenger service only opened in 1830). Pearson, instrumental in the removal of the anti-Catholic inscription on the foot of the Monument, was a progressive and a pioneer – his persistence helped persuade the House of Commons to approve a bill in 1853 to build a subterranean railway between Paddington and Farringdon.

The reason such a hare-brained, experimental scheme received approval was one of necessity. London roads were suffering from terrible overcrowding and the mainline railways all stopped on the fringes of the West End and City thanks to a Royal Commission of 1846 that declared central London a no-go area for railway companies. A method of linking the mainline stations of Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross was needed, and Pearson’s plan fitted the bill. He helped raise the finance from private investors and the City of London, and excavation began in 1860, with a shallow trench dug beneath Euston Road and then covered over. Thousands of poor residents were displaced in the process.

The Metropolitan Line opened for business on January 10 1863, clocking 30,000 passengers on the first day. A celebratory banquet had been held the previous day at Farringdon. Pearson was not among the guests, having passed away the previous year. Another absentee was Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, who was approaching his 80th birthday, and said he wanted to spend as much time above ground as he possibly could (he died two years later).

The Metropolitan was a success, with 11.8 million passengers (the population of London was about 3.2 million) braving the foul, smoke-filled conditions in its first year. The Metropolitan’s owners claimed the ‘invigorating’ atmosphere ‘provided a sort of health resort for people who suffered from asthma’, but they also allowed drivers to grow beards in a futile bid to filter out the worst of the fumes. A civil servant who had spent time in Sudan said the smell reminded him of a ‘crocodile’s breath’. One attempt to improve conditions saw smoking banned, until an MP objected and insisted that all railways provided a smoking carriage. Smoking was not banned again on the trains until 1985, and at stations until after the King’s Cross fire of 1987, itself the culmination of 30 years of neglect.

Among those to benefit most from the new railway were the lowest-paid workers, who were entitled to use a special, cheap pre-6am train. Social journalist Henry Mayhew interviewed some such passengers in 1865, first explaining that ‘this subterranean method of locomotion had always struck us as being the most thoroughly Cockney element of all within the wide range of Cocaigne’. The labourers he spoke to all voiced their enthusiasm for a service that allowed poorer Londoners to live further out, sparing them a six-mile walk to work and allowing their families to live in two rooms rather than one. As the Metropolitan expanded westwards, it opened up new areas for Londoners to move to, and the overcrowded city d slowly started to expand – one of the reasons that London still has such a relatively low population density. When Hammersmith received its first station in 1864 it was still a village ‘best known for spinach and strawberries’, writes Christian Wolmar in his definitive ‘The Subterranean Railway’ (2004), but it soon became a major interchange. This pattern was repeated throughout the Underground’s history. When the Northern Line hit Morden in 1926, it was a village of 1,000 inhabitants; five years later, its population was 12,600.

The success of the Metropolitan led to the building of the District Line along the Victoria Embankment, and then the creation of a Circle Line to link the two. Unfortunately, the two east-west lines were run by rivals, James Forbes and Edward Watkin, whose perpetual bickering meant the Circle took twenty years to complete. When it was finished in 1884, Watkins’ Met operated trains that ran clockwise, while Forbes’ District controlled those in the other direction; such was the antagonism between the two, the companies refused to sell tickets for their rival line, meaning a passenger might end up paying for 20 stops rather than seven. When the Circle was finally electrified in 1905 the companies used different systems which proved incompatible, resulting in a further three-month delay. Because the Underground was built haphazardly by private investment and with no central planning, there were many such inconsistencies. Some destinations had more than one station, built by competing interests, which explains why there is such a poor interchange at Hammersmith between the Hammersmith & City and District Lines, and why Oxford Circus has two different surface stations on either side of Argyll Street. This is also why there are so many ghost stations on the network – about 40 – built without adequate knowledge of whether they were actually needed.

The completion of the Circle Line marked the last of the sub-surface lines, built by the simple, cut-and-cover method. Advances in tunnelling and the use of electrified rails now allowed for the building of deep-level lines that gave birth to the phrase ‘tube’ and allowed London’s network to really connect the dots beneath the capital. The first was the cramped City & South London line from City to the Elephant & Castle, later incorporated into the Northern Line, which was opened in 1890 by the future king Edward VII. This was followed by the Waterloo & City, Central, Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead (now the Charing Cross branch of the Northern), all before 1907.

This splurge of lines occurred within a narrow window of opportunity after the invention of suitable tunnelling technology and before the appearance of the motorised bus. It was aided by gullible investors (who never quite received the returns they were promised), public demand and London’s favourable geological conditions – the capital’s clay being an ideal substance through which to tunnel.

Several of these lines were built by American financier Charles Tyson Yerkes, who also controlled the District and was the first person to attempt to realise a unified vision of London’s chaotic underground network. A property speculator with a questionable reputation (he served time in prison in Philadelphia for embezzlement) Yerkes put together numerous complex financial schemes to get his lines built, often using capital from the States, but never got the chance to cash in on his success, dying in 1905.

Yerkes left an extraordinary legacy. While lines such as City & South London never proved popular with the public – something that had much to do with the fact that the trains, or ‘padded cells’, were built without windows because the manufacturers figured there was nothing to see down there – his Central Line was a hit. This was largely because, like the Metropolitan half a century before, it served major transport routes, relieving strain on crowded streets above. There were drawbacks – the line followed the road pattern because the tunnellers didn’t want to pay compensation to surface landowners, so there were unnecessary kinks – but the Central Line was a groundbreaking service, attracting 100,000 passengers daily. For a start, it only had one class of travel, and one price, hence the nickname the d d Twopenny Tube. It also had some innovative engineering aspects (each station was built atop a slight incline, meaning trains naturally slowed when entering stations and sped up when leaving, while the flat face of the train pushing air in front of it provided much-need ventilation) and carriages were considerably plusher than on the City & South London. Yerkes’ desire for a unified service also led to the introduction of what can be seen as the first attempt at branding on the tube – the Leslie Green-designed distinctive dried-blood-coloured tiles of the surface stations – something pursued by the man who followed.

Frank Pick began working for Yerkes’ Underground Electric Railway Limited (UERL), which owned all the underground lines other than the Metropolitan and the Waterloo & City, in 1906. Over the next 30 years, in partnership with Lord Ashfield, general manager of UERL and future chairman of London Transport, he helped make the tube the ‘most famous and respected transport system in the world’. Historian Nikolaus Pevsner believes Pick’s accomplishments to be greater still: in 1942 he described him as ‘the greatest patron of the arts whom this century has so far produced in England and indeed the ideal patron of our age’. He is certainly one of the few transport gurus to have met Stalin, Hitler and Churchill.

Pick’s reputation was based on his eye for design. He introduced the roundel, borrowed from the London General Omnibus Company, but made famous by the tube; he asked calligrapher Edward Johnston to design the tube’s unique font; commissioned beautiful posters by Man Ray, Graham Sutherland and Edward Nash; introduced each line’s distinctive patterned seat-covers or moquettes; appointed architect Charles Holden to design modernist stations, most famously at Arnos Grove; and in 1931 he paid Harry Beck five guineas to come up with a new kind of map that would simplify the most complicated transport system in the world. All the while, the tube continued to spread east, west, north and even – occasionally – south, and was by 1934 carrying 410 million passengers a year. Pick can be said to be as responsible for the image London projects around the world as Christopher Wren, George Gilbert Scott or Norman Foster. Even today, Transport for London is well aware of the value of the brand, and jealously guards icons such as the roundel and Beck’s map from even the most loving of imitators.

Pick’s definition of the tube did not end there. In tandem with Lord Ashfield, he also arranged the integration of London’s various transport systems in 1933 under the umbrella London Transport, ensuring that an underground network that had hitherto been privately funded and unprofitable became publicly supported, thanks in part to Leader of London County Council (and Peter Mandelson’s grandfather) Herbert Morrison.

Finance has always been the failing of the tube, largely because, as Wolmar astutely points out, the early railwaymen ‘were building a fantastic resource for Londoners whose value could never be adequately reflected through the fare box which was their only source of income’. This was as true in the days of private entrepreneur and public ownership as it is with today’s uncomfortable mish-mash, the great experiment of the Public Private Partnership. All too briefly London Transport papered over this failing through a combination of Ashfield and Pick’s acumen and the fact that, following the depression, there was greater confidence in public ownership, and more skill in the manner with which it was executed. But this was soon diluted with World War II (in which the tube played its own valuable role), after which, rebuilding the country took precedence.

Which, more or less, is where we are today. The tube has acquired only two new lines since Yerkes’ frenzy: the Victoria, which took 20 years from planning to opening in 1968, and the Jubilee, hewn in part from the Bakerloo Line and extended magnificently in 2000. Years of under-investment have taken their toll, and the system looks haggard and worn. Recent years have seen some improvement, but the cost to users has soared. Even the ongoing improvements leave the system, temporarily at least, worse off – with stations closed for months and entire lines closed weekend after weekend, reinforcing the public’s lack of sympathy for this ancient marvel.

So it’s no wonder that we look upon the city’s mighty works and despair. But perhaps we should, every now and then at least, reflect on what the city would be like if the tube had never existed, be thankful for the visionaries of the past, and hopeful that their legacy will once more receive the attention and adulation it deserves.

At Speakers’ Corner

This article was first published in Time Out in 2006. I am posting it after hearing about Sounds from the Parka partnership between On the Record and Bishopsgate Institute that is hoping to record an oral history of Speakers’ Corner. Photos by Chris Kennett. 

This London curiosity grew out of revolt, when Edmund Beales led the Reform League to Hyde Park in 1866 to complain about the lack of a vote for working men. The marchers were blocked from entering the park by police and a small but interesting riot developed. The Reform League continued to meet at Marble Arch to test their right to hold public meetings in the park. In 1872, the government relented and granted the right to assembly and free speech in this corner of Hyde Park. The Met promptly responded by turning Marble Arch into a tiny police station to keep an eye on the rabble below.

(1968) credit, Chris Kennett

On a sunny Sunday in October, the rabble are out in force with a dozen speakers taking their spots, espousing black power, Islamism, Christian atheism and much else that is vocal but indeterminable. The two largest crowds gather directly opposite each other on either side of the path. One is engaged in raucous religious debate, slinging insults about the Koran and Bible back and forth, and occasionally taking time out from happily lambasting each other to heckle the speakers, a Christian, a secularist and a Muslim, who each take their turn upon the platform. It’s the sort of ferocious debate about Islam and freedom that the newspapers tell us we don’t dare have in public.  Across the way, a striking young man has drawn a larger but less vocal crowd to hear him eloquently espouse familiar but fervent criticism of the Iraq War.

Nikolai Segura has been coming to Speakers’ Corner on-and-off for seven years, and then on a weekly basis for the last 12 months, during which time he’s become one of the Corner’s regular hecklers. ‘I’ve been heckling for a year,’ he says. ‘It makes a show for the crowd, but it also sends the message that this is a place that exemplifies freedom of speech.’

A couple of weeks ago he was heckling a speaker when ‘some Muslims came up to me and said there were extremists in the park who would kill me for what I was saying,’ he says. Segura’s response was bold. He has returned to the park wearing a Muhammad-baiting T-shirt (‘There’s a picture of the prophet on the back of this shirt… only kidding [please don’t kill me])’, and today he gets on the stepladder to speak himself for the first time. The resulting debate is ferocious, spiteful and fascinating.

Religious debate has been a feature of Speakers’ Corner since before it even existed – many of those executed at nearby Tyburn were Catholics, who used their final speech to try to convert the crowd . But the unmistakable change in overall tone from political to theological – the ‘three Abrahamic religions shouting at each other’ as Segura puts it – was first noticed by speaker Terminator 24 [T24] 25 years ago.

‘It’s changed a lot,’ he says. ‘During the Cold War it was a lot of social democrats, trade unionists, socialists and many intellectuals. But after 1979 international relations affected Speakers’ Corner and the revolution in Iran saw a change. It became more aggressive, more religious. And after 1989 there were even fewer universal, social democratic presentations and more nationalism and fundamentalism. It mirrors how the world changes.’

(1972) credit, chris kennett

Heiko Koo, who runs the Speakers’ Corner website, believes the debate there is genuine. ‘All speakers get information from each other and people in the audience and from the internet, so ideas and theories get spread around and I’ve seen them change the mind of some speakers,’ he says.

T24, like Segura, started in the crowd before progressing up the ladder. ‘I came here and started to ask questions, and the speakers were very abusive, so I thought: That’s not the way; if I were speaking, I would not be oppressive and tyrannical. Now, when I talk, I leave it open, without judgment, express a thought and let others join in. It’s unique, very special here. I love being with real people, seeing their expressions, their laughter, their frustrations and anger. I love it here. The open space, it’s free and,’ a pause for effect, and to have a swig of coke, ‘I have nothing else to do.’

Sounds from the Park is  organising a reminiscence event at the Bishopsgate Institute on 8th December for everyone with memories of Speakers’ Corner.

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.

Cabbage, cheese and Liverpool

Uncut dragged me kicking and screaming out of my London comfort zone by asking me to write about Liverpool’s Cavern club. The feature was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Beatles show at the Cavern in February and is published in the current issue. It begins like this:

Something is happening in the streets of Liverpool. It manifests itself in a number of unusual ways: in the explicable aroma of cabbage and cheese that clings to local youths, in the long queues of teenagers that stretch down Mathew Street before disappearing into a hole in the ground and, most worryingly for the workers in nearby offices, in a constant and puzzling low rumbling sound that breaks out underground every weekday afternoon from midday.What on earth is going on?

The answer, of course, was that The Beatles were going on.

This is probably the only feature I’ve ever written that will namecheck Cilla Black, Edwina Currie and Freddie Starr but don’t let that put you off. I’ve also interviewed the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s about their hit ‘Urban Spaceman’, which was about as insanely entertaining as the song itself. 

Eel Pie Island

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My feature on the birth of British R&B at Eel Pie Island is in this month’s issue of Uncut.

It includes interviews with Pete Townshend, Ron Wood, Kenny Ball, Top Topham and the inventor Trevor Baylis, who still lives on the island and told me.

 ‘I moved to the island in the 1970s when I’d made enough money as an underwater escape artist in Berlin to buy a plot of land, but I went there regularly from 1957. They were wild times. If you wanted to get your leg over, that’s where you went. It was notorious. There was no bridge, the only way to get there was on a chain ferry. On the island, a little old lady sat in a tollbooth and stamped the back of your hand. The hotel was very Dickensian, a bit of a tramshed just about hanging together, but it had a dance floor that was like a trampoline so if you couldn’t dance when you went in you certainly could when you came out.’

South-west London was a fertile territory for music in the early 1960s, and the likes of Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and Jimmy Page all learnt their craft in the venues of Richmond and on Eel Pie Island.

As Ian McLagan of the Small Faces explained: ‘The audience was full of musicians. Loads of them. You’d see them all in the front row – “Do you see that?”, “Yeah”, “Well I can do that too”. We were all kids, but when you saw the Stones it was “Fuck me, it’s possible…” ’

Diamond Geezer visited Eel Pie Island recently and writes about it here.