The National Theatre – Denys Lasdun’s theatre on the Southbank

In 1979 I photographed the recently opened National Theatre on the Southbank:

National Theatre

In 2020 I photographed the same building again:

National Theatre

Before getting into the history of the building, the two photos highlight an issue I have with the Southbank – trees.

The trees along the Southbank illustrate a really difficult problem with landscaping public space. When walking along the Southbank, the trees add considerably to the environment. Providing shade, colour, breaking up and adding texture to an open space, as well as their environmental benefits.

However from an architectural perspective, I am not sure they are in the right place.

The National Theatre building has always been a rather controversial design. In 1988 the Prince of Wales described the theatre as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”, which is a rather good description.

Personally I really like the building. Close up, with the textured concrete, the external stairways and the diagonal columns that stretch out to support the lower cantilevered terrace. The building also looks good at night:

National Theatre

When the large glass windows to the lower floors, and the external stairways stand out well:

National Theatre

However it is only from a distance that the building can be really appreciated.

It was constructed on land next to the River Thames as part of the post war plan for cultural development of the Southbank, and it is from across the river that the overall design of the building can be fully seen.

Compare my two photos and standing on the north bank in 1979, we can see the complete façade of the building, the full width of the stacked terraces and the two rectangular concrete towers that rise above the building. In 2020 the trees obscure the majority of the tiered terraces.

The architect of the National Theatre building, Sir Denys Lasdun, probably designed the river facing façade expecting this view of the building to be seen from across the river, and the trees that have been planted along the Southbank obscure this view – as shown in my 2020 photo.

I am not against trees in a city environment. Far more are needed in London. They considerably improve the walking experience, they improve the environment, they cut down the wind tunnel effect produced by the clustering of tall buildings. I am just not sure that the trees along the Southbank are in the right place, in respect to the architecturally important buildings that line this part of the river.

We can see the same issue a short distance further west, where trees also obscure views of the Queen Elizabeth Hall complex to the left, and the Royal Festival Hall to the right.

National Theatre

The Royal Festival Hall also has a problem with the development around the Shell Centre tower, where the tower is the only remaining part of the original office complex. The earlier 9 storey office blocks surrounding the tower have been demolished, to be replaced by much taller blocks which dominate the view of the Royal Festival Hall from the east.

National Theatre

The National Theatre has a fascinating history.

Ideas for a National Theatre started in the mid 19th century, however first plans for a National Theatre would come fifty years later in 1903 when the actor and director Harvey Granville Barker published plans for a National Theatre.

Fund raising and campaigns continued through the first decades of the 20th century, however it would need the post war consensus that something good should come out of the war, along with the availability of space on a bomb damaged Southbank to turn almost one hundred years of ideas and campaigning into a physical building.

The 1943 County of London Plan proposed a radical development of the Southbank, with Government Offices, a Youth Centre, and in the centre, a Theatre.

National Theatre

The Festival of Britain went on to occupy the site and the Royal Festival Hall remained as the only permanent building from the festival. The Festival of Britain did not include a National Theatre.

In 1949 a National Theatre Bill committed £1M of central government funding towards the project, but the project would have to wait until 1961 when the London County Council committed to the rest of the funding for the theatre.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) appointed a panel of architectural experts to evaluate proposals for the building’s design, and after a shortened evaluation process, Denys Lasdun was appointed as the architect for the National Theatre.

Denys Lasdun’s career started in the 1930s, but was interrupted during the Second World War by a period in the Royal Engineers.

Restarting his career after the war, his early work included east London developments such as Sulkin House and Keeling House (see this detailed exploration of these two buildings on the Municipal Dreams site).

In the early 1960s his work included the Royal College of Physicians in Regent’s Park, and the University of East Anglia campus, which included rather novel pyramidal shaped student halls.

The initial plans for the National Theatre included not just the Theatre, but also an Opera House. Land was made available for these by the LCC, between County Hall and Hungerford Bridge. The land that had been occupied by the Dome of Discovery during the Festival of Britain.

Lasdun created a model of his proposed National Theatre and Opera House in the original location. I photographed a photo of the model from a magazine a number of years ago (hence the poor quality). In the model below, the National Theatre is on the right and the Opera House is on the left. The ghostly form of the Shell Centre tower hovers in the background. The site today is occupied by the Jubilee Gardens (see this post for the story of the gardens).

National Theatre

The two buildings almost mirror each other, and the designs are very similar to that of the National Theatre we see today, with terraces running along the length of the buildings and the large concrete towers above.

They almost look like two cruise ships in dock alongside the river.

Going back to my comments earlier on trees, Lasdun’s model includes trees along the river side of the buildings, so it must have been part of his original thinking, however I wonder if he considered the visual impact these would have after years of growth on the visibility of his design from across the river?

The designs for the two buildings were highly regarded, however late 1960s budgetary constraints scaled back the project to just the National Theatre, along with a location change to a site immediately to the east of Waterloo Bridge.

Construction began in 1969.

Work during the 1970s was relatively slow due to a number of strikes, shortage of workers and the 1973 oil crisis.  There were also funding problems, with the cost of the project going significantly over the initial budget. There had already been many design changes to address budgetary issues, for example, the terraces which run along the river facing side of the building were originally to have run around all sides of the buildings. Terraces on all but the river façade were dropped to save costs.

Additional funding was provided by the Arts Council and Government during the 1970s. In March 1975, Hugh Jenkins the Minister for the Arts made the following statement in Parliament in support of the National Theatre, in reply to a question “Our attitude to the arts has changed. We no longer take the view that only that which pays can and should be done. We now say that we must do it the best way it can be done. We must do it even if it is expensive because the theatre is as necessary to urban civilisation as an art gallery, a library, or a museum”.

As well as the National Theatre, the Government also had another costly project in view, the extension of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. With the planned move of the market to Nine Elms the Arts Council had already purchased the land, however Hugh Jenkins was not in a position to confirm any future plans or funding for the Royal Opera House.

Construction of the National Theatre was complicated not just with the building, but by the three theatres that were within the overall structure. These were planned to make use of the latest technological advances, which again caused delays and cost overruns.

The three theatres were:

  • The Olivier. Named after Laurence Olivier, the first artistic director of the theatre. Seating 1160 in two main stepped tiers, linked by intermediate tiers
  • The Lyttelton. Named after Oliver Lyttelton, the first chairman of the National Theatre. Seating 890 across two levels
  • The Cottesloe. Named after Lord Cottesloe, the Chaiman of the Southbank Theatre Board. Seating between 200 and 400, dependent on the layout of stage and seating. The name of this theatre has since changed to the Dorfman, after Lloyd Dorfman, who donated £10 million towards the National Theatre Future redevelopment.

Each theatre had its own machinery to move scenery and equipment across the theatre, elevators to raise up to the stage floor, lighting and lighting control systems, sound systems and stage management systems. The Olivier also had an 11.5 metre drum revolving stage as part of the theatre’s construction.

The aim was to make each theatre as flexible as possible so as to support a wide range of future productions.

Attention to detail was not limited to the technically advanced theatres. Although the concrete construction of the building could appear to be a simple and cheap construction method, in reality great care was taken with the shuttering into which the concrete was poured. The wood used was sawn Douglas Fir, with a six-inch module being used for most parts of the building. This gives the building the appearance of being constructed from the concrete equivalent of wooden planks.

The Queen officially opened the National Theatre on the 25th October 1976, and the three individual theatres gradually opened between 1976 and 1977 as they were completed.

In five years time, the National Theatre will be celebrating 50 years since being opened by the Queen. The theatre has been redeveloped and upgraded during the past decades and still continues to serve the purpose first proposed in the mid 19th century.

Sir Denys Lasdun was knighted in 1976. He would continue with his architectural practice, with projects including the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg. He died in 2001.

I will leave the last word on the National Theatre to the architect Denys Lasdun who, when the theatre opened in 1976, said “Nothing takes priority over the atmosphere and the dramatic space created by the building. Although we’ve opened the theatre, it’s not the end but the beginning of something, from my point of view. The nature and the quality of something won’t be known for a couple of years; it depends on the directors and what they create within the new space”.

The building does indeed create an atmospheric and dramatic space.

Before closing the post, going back to the original 1979 photo, there is a mystery structure which I just cannot remember anything about. To the left of the National Theatre, on space which is now occupied by the IBM building, there is a strange, apparently circular structure which appears to spiral into or out of the ground.

I have enlarged this feature in the photo below:

National Theatre

Any suggestions would be most welcome.

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Billingsgate Excavation and London Docklands

Two apparently unconnected subjects for this week’s post. A Billingsgate excavation, and the London Docklands. What connects the two is that whilst sorting a box of papers this last week, I found leaflets handed out to visitors when it was possible to visit the archeological excavation in the old lorry park at Billingsgate Market, and the London Docklands Development Corporation Visitor Centre on the Isle of Dogs.

I had posted some photos of an excavation a few months ago, asking for help to confirm the location, and a number of readers suggested Billingsgate. I was really pleased to find the Billingsgate leaflet because it helped to confirm the location.

Billingsgate Excavation

Billingsgate fish market moved to a new location between the Isle of Dogs and Poplar in February 1982, and whilst the buildings of the fish market were to be retained, the adjacent lorry park was to be redeveloped with an office block. The lorry park was in a prime position between the River Thames and Lower Thames Street and offered a sizeable area for new offices.

Archeologically, the site of the lorry park was important. It had been built on the area of land that was once the shifting waterfront between land and river. The Thames has only relatively recently been channeled within concrete walls, many centuries ago, the river’s edge would have been marsh, inter-tidal land up to where the ground rises north of Lower Thames Street.

As the importance of the City as a trading port grew, the edge of the City expanded into the river, building quayside, docks and buildings from the Roman period onwards.

It was this advance of the waterfront that the excavation hoped to uncover below a tarmac lorry park.

In 1982, the Museum of London published a leaflet explaining the Billingsgate Excavations and it was this leaflet I found in a box of London guides and leaflets.

Billingsgate excavation

The leaflet was published during the early weeks of the excavation, and provided some background to the location and included a drawing showing the results from a previous nearby excavation at St Magnus House which had found evidence of the Thames waterfront as it expanded southwards from the Roman period to the 13th century. A continuation of this Roman to 13th century strata was expected to be found under the Billingsgate lorry park.

Billingsgate excavation

Long before the fish market, Billingsgate had been one of the three docks or harbours dating from the Saxon period, along with Queenhithe and Dowgate. These later two sites had been lost to archeological investigation due to development in the 1960s and early 1970s, so access to the Billingsgate lorry park was of considerable importance.

Preparation of the site began on the 20th January 1982 when the tarmac was removed, along with rubble found in the basements of the buildings beneath the tarmac. A cofferdam needed to be installed to shore up the sides of the site and prevent water entering the excavation at times of high tide. The waters of the Thames would still try and seep through the land the river had lost. The work to excavate the site began in March.

The leaflet explains the source of funding for the excavation, from the Corporation of the City of London, the Department of the Environment and from a number of private contributions. A reminder of the expense of such projects and the considerable challenges of raising funds for such important work, as when these sites have been lost, there will never again be a chance to explore the history of the site.

Billingsgate excavation

I had photographed the lorry park in 1980, when the market was still open. Rather a bland view when you consider what would be found below ground.

Billingsgate excavation

I took a number of photos of the excavations when I visited the site. When I originally scanned the negatives I was not sure of their location (I was not good at keeping records of the location of my photos), and I published a couple in a post a few months ago asking for help with the location. A number of readers suggested Billingsgate, and finding the leaflet helped jog my memory of visiting the site.

Billingsgate excavation

The Billingsgate excavation uncovered a significant amount of evidence of the waterfront as it developed, and the buildings that lined the river.

Excavation of the upper levels found evidence of the waterfront dating back to the 12th century, along with tenements that lined the river (extending into the Billingsgate lorry park from other tenements discovered during earlier excavations to the west). A small inlet from the river was also discovered under the lorry park.

The church of St Botolph Billingsgate was originally just north of the site, where Lower Thames Street is today, however part of the church did extend into the area of the lorry park, and evidence of the southern wall was found, along with two tiled floors from the church and a number of burials.

Numerous small finds were uncovered, including a rare 14th century buckle, a lead lion badge, which could have been a pilgrim’s badge and intact 17th century bottles.

A number of fabrics dating back to between the 12th and 14th centuries were found. These were made of undyed, natural fibres, the type that have been used for sacking, probably evidence of the transport of goods from ships at the inlet and Billingsgate waterfront.

The Billingsgate dock may have been used by larger ships that would have been used for cross channel trade. Documentary evidence from the 14th century implies that these ships were encouraged to use Billingsgate rather than navigate through London Bridge to Queenhithe.

If you look in the middle of the following photo, there appears to be a number of twigs and branches laid out to form a mat. This is wattle consolidation in front of the 12th century waterfront.

Billingsgate excavation

In the following photo, a three sided wooden long rectangular box like structure can be seen:

Billingsgate excavation

This is a wooden drain that dates to the 13th century, possibly around 1270. The drain extended for a length of 8.8 metres, parts also had the top covering, and the drain was in exceptionally good condition allowing the detail of construction to be examined.

The results of the Billingsgate and related excavations, were published in the 2018 book “London’s Waterfront 1100-1666: excavations in Thames Street, London, 1974-84” by John Schofield, Lyn Blackmore and Jacqui Pearce with Tony Dyson. The book is a detailed examination of London’s historic waterfront as it developed over the centuries.

The book is published by Archaeopress, and is available for download under Open Access. 

The book includes a photo of the same drain that was in my photo, and as Archaeopress appears to state that the book comes with a Creative Commons licence, I have copied the photo from the book below.

Billingsgate excavation

The drain is exactly the same as in my photo, so final confirmation that my photos were of the Billingsgate excavation.

The Billingsgate excavation was a significant dig during the early 1980s. I found some of my old copies of Popular Archeology from the time, and there are a number of articles by John Schofield providing updates on the work.

Billingsgate excavation

The following photo shows how far down the excavation had reached when I photographed the site, however it would continue downwards to reach the timbers of the Saxon and Roman waterfront, showing just how far below the current surface of the City that these remains are found.

Billingsgate excavation

The excavation was initially scheduled to end in November 1982, however agreement with the developer allowed work to continue into 1983.

Excavation finally worked down through the Saxon waterfront to the substantial timbers of the Roman waterfront.

The BBC history series Chronicle made a programme on the Billingsgate excavation and this can now be found here on YouTube.

As well as providing comprehensive coverage of the excavation, told by those working on the site, it also shows how this type of work was carried out in the early 1980s, and “because the dig has extra funding from sponsors, the Museum of London can invest in computers for the first time”. Very early use of computer technology to record a large excavation.

When work completed, a large number of finds were ready for further investigation. Wood from the various waterfronts had been removed, and sections of wood cut out to allow the age of the tree and when it was cut down to be investigated.

The BBC Chronicle programme shows the pressures of City archeology, the pressure to complete by a date driven by the developer, negotiations for extensions and how work is planned to retrieve as much as possible within a limited period of time.

Today, the site is under the building at the western end of the old Billingsgate Market building, at the far end of the following photo.

Billingsgate excavation

The following photo shows a very different view from roughly where I was standing to take the 1980 photo of the old lorry park.

Billingsgate excavation

Finding the leaflet on the dig, along with reading the book and watching the Chronicle episode brought back a load of memories from visiting the site almost 40 years ago. An advert in Popular Archaeology of July 1982 states that the site was open for visitors every day of the week except for Monday, and admission to the viewing platform cost 50p for adults and 25p for children.

Preserving timbers exposed to the air, when they have been buried in waterlogged soil for centuries is a considerable problem, however it would have been really good if some section of the old Roman and Saxon waterfront could have been preserved in situ. It would have provided a really good demonstration of how the present City has been built on the layered centuries of previous development, and as the City has risen in height, so the Thames has been pushed back into the the confined channel that the river runs in today.

Another of my finds whilst sorting through a box of London papers was a reminder of a very different visit.

London Docklands – The Exceptional Place

In the late 1980s / early 1990s, the redevelopment of the old docklands, around the Isle of Dogs and the Royal Docks further to the east was moving forward under the management of the London Docklands Development Corporation (the LDDC).

The LDDC opened a visitor centre at 3 Limeharbour on the Isle of Dogs, where a brochure on the London Docklands – The Exceptional Place was available:

Billingsgate excavation

The rear of the brochure, shows a train on the recently opened section of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR).

Billingsgate excavation

The brochure opens up to reveal a large map of the area, from the City of London in the west, to the edge of the Royal Docks in the east. Having a map is probably why I picked up and kept the brochure – anything with a map.

Billingsgate excavation

The focus of the map is on the transport links connecting the docklands to the City and the surrounding road network. Only recently this area of London had seemed a remote and derelict land and if the LDDC were to entice the investment needed, along with the businesses and people to relocate to the docklands, they had to demonstrate that travel was easy.

The map charts the growth of the Docklands Light Railway, and shows the extent of plans in 1990, along with some station changes to the DLR network we see today.

By 1990, the DLR extended from Tower Gateway in the City, to Stratford, and Island Gardens on the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs. The eastern route onwards from Poplar was shown as a dashed route to show that this section of the route was under construction.

Billingsgate excavation

The following section shows the north eastern tip of the isle of Dogs and Leamouth, with the River Lea / Bow Creek curving around an area of land that has now been redeveloped as City Island.

Billingsgate excavation

The red dashed line shows the 1990 expectations for the planned Jubilee line extension, where the line would continue from Canary Wharf, to a new station called Brunswick, then to Canning Town and on to Stratford.

As built, the Jubilee line extension took a different route, and headed across the river to North Greenwich from Canary Wharf, before heading back across the river to Canning Town. Brunswick station would never be built.

Comparing the planned to the built route of the DLR shows a similar loss of the name Brunswick for a station. In the 1990 plans, there was to be a Brunswick station on the DLR, however as built, this would be named East India. The following map marks the location of DLR stations today:

Billingsgate excavation

The route further east to Beckton shows the loss of a station. Connaught Station was planned between Prince Regent and Royal Albert stations, however when looking at the map, Connaught would have been so close to Royal Albert that it made little sense to build the station.

Billingsgate excavation

The yellow area in the above map is London City Airport, which had opened three years earlier in 1987. The map also shows the 1990 planned extension to the DLR, and the map below shows the line as built today.

Billingsgate excavation

The 1990 plan was for the line to run along the north of the Royal docks, however in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the line was further extended to Greenwich, Lewisham, City Airport and Woolwich.

The route south of the Royal Docks is shown on the 2020 map above, not on the 1990 map, and in the 1990 map, the line terminates at Island Gardens to the south of the Isle of Dogs, rather than crossing under the river and continuing on to Lewisham as it does today.

The map also identifies another element of transport infrastructure that has not been built  – the East London River Crossing is shown on the eastern edge of the map from Gallions Reach, heading under the river towards the A2.

Billingsgate excavation

Ideas for this tunnel keep resurfacing, however it is not on Transport for London’s list of new river crossings for London, and I suspect given current financial conditions, the Silvertown Tunnel will be the only new river crossing built for a very long time.

Two very different topics, the only apparent connection being the leaflet and brochure coming from a box of London papers. There is though another connection – they both tell of the development of London. With Billingsgate we can discover the growth of London’s waterfront from the Roman timbers found many feet below the current surface level, through the Saxon and Medieval to a lorry park that served the old fish market.

In the London Docklands, development continues to this day, and the brochure records some of this and shows how the 1990 plans developed to the transport network we see today.

It is interesting to speculate whether archeologists in 2000 years time will discover any remains of the DLR and what they will make of a 20th century transport system.

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Blogs, Books and Population Statistics

After a strange and tragic year, a year in which so many have suffered loss of loved ones, financial loss and the day to day stress of living through a pandemic, I thought I would end 2020 with a rather different post. One that looks back on the blogs and books I have been reading during the past ten months, and looks at how previous population trends across London may change in the future.

Three very different subjects, but hopefully suited for the period between Christmas and the New Year, when the days lack their normal structure and blend into each other, made even worse with the restrictions of Tier 4, and when the change to a new year brings thoughts of the past and the future.

Blogs

I started writing the blog back in 2014 after attending a blog writing course run by the Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life. I had been trying to summon the motivation, and a purpose for a project I had been thinking about for years, to track down the location of the sites my father had been photographing from 1946.

It seemed the structure and routine of a blog would provide the right motivation and purpose, although I did not expect to be still writing almost seven years later.

One of the blogs I have been reading for years is Diamond Geezer, who has been writing since 2002 and publishes daily. One of the topics Diamond Geezer occasionally touches on is the loss of many long form blogs, and whether this form of writing is a gradually disappearing format.

I hope not given that I probably started rather late using blogging as a medium, so I thought I would celebrate the diversity of blogs with a sample of those that I read regularly. I will also be adding what WordPress terms a Blogroll to the side bar of the blogs main page.

So starting with the blog that started me writing:

Spitalfields Life – A blog that probably needs no introduction from me. Written by the Gentle Author, a daily exploration of the people and places of east London, and indeed London as a whole. Spitalfields Life has become a campaigning blog, addressing some of the proposals that seem to want to change London without considering the history or future of the city, probably apart from a quick commercial return.

Diamond Geezer –  Another blog that posts daily, with the added benefit that you are never sure what the topic will be. Covering London, as well as visits to the rest of the country, analysis of data published about London’s transport network, anniversaries, street names etc.

What I envy about the Diamond Geezer blog is the ability of the author to craft a wonderful 50 words on a topic, where I would waffle through 500 words trying to say the same thing.

Bug Woman – Adventures in London – Mainly focused on the flora and fauna of London, Bug Woman shows another side of the city. The animals, plants, trees that are around us, but need that extra bit of attention to see and understand.

Bug Woman started with a weekly post, but for the last few months has been posting daily and provides a fascinating alternative view of the city.

Flickering Lamps – Although posts from this blog are not frequent, what the blog lacks in quantity is easily covered by the quality of the posts. A historical blog which brings to life some unique stories with in depth research and some wonderful writing and photography. A blog which demonstrates how much there is to be discovered across the streets of London, and further afield exploring the churches, graves and ruins to be found across the country.

Nature Girl, or “nature writing from a country warden” – I found this blog when I was researching a visit to the London Stone by Yantlet Creek on the Isle of Grain. The author is an Environmental Consultant in that wonderful area of Kent along the River Thames and inland to the River Medway. Although the blog is not about London, the proximity and influence of the Thames on north Kent has always fascinated me, and London looms as a potential threat to the area from expansion of the city, schemes such as the estuary airport, housing development, energy projects etc.

Nature Girl writes about the natural beauty of the area, and the importance of looking after such a special area of the country, not that far out from London.

Historic Southampton – Southampton is a city that like London was badly bombed in the last war, grew significantly because of the city’s access to the sea, and has a long and continuing history as a major port. The Historic Southampton blog explores the history of this fascinating city, and through some unique research and presentation of data, has mapped the location of Titanic crew members who lived or lodged in the city, and really brings home the impact of the disaster on the families in just one city.

The above is just a sample, there is so much creativity and research to be found across the blogging world, and hopefully the format will continue to gain an audience for many years to come.

London 2020 Reading

I have probably read more during 2020 than in any previous year. I have also tried to expand my London reading to explore recent history, and the London that I have experienced from the mid 1970s. The following books are a sample of my 2020 London reading (over the years, I have been offered books to review, I never except these. All books have been chosen and purchased by me, usually in a bricks and mortar book shop. It is very important to me to keep the blog free of any external, commercial or hidden influence):

London Made Us – Robert Elms

Robert Elms is a broadcaster on BBC Radio London, a writer and once a journalist with the New Musical Express (NME). The title London Made Us very much describes the contents of the book – a family history of London, growing up in London and how London has changed.

I will use the word evocative a number of times in the rest of the blog, and for London Made Us, the book is brilliantly evocative of London in the 1970s and 80s.

Elms supports Queens Park Rangers, who play at Loftus Road. I have a very different experience of Loftus Road, it was where I saw my first major stadium concert in 1975 when Yes were headlining – a memorable day which still seems as if it was only yesterday.

Blogs

Alpha City – Rowland Atkinson

One of the reasons that London has such a global presence is the attraction of the city to the super-rich of the world.

The attraction of London as an asset rich city, a place where wealth can be accumulated and preserved has an impact on all those who live and work in the city. This has influenced the buildings we see grow across the city, the ownership of the city’s land and buildings, on the type and price of housing across the city.

Alpha City helps explain why London is the London we see today, and what the impact of these trends will be on the future of London and in-equality in the city, and goes some way to explaining why the population density of Kensington & Chelsea has reduced so significantly (see later in this post).

Blogs

Soho. A Guide to Soho’s History, Architecture and People – Dan Cruickshank

This is a wonderful book on a unique area of London. The first half provides historical background, the initial development of the estates that would come to form Soho and some social history of the area.

The second half is titled The Walk and presents a detailed walk through Soho, street by street and frequently house by house. I read the first half at home, then took the book out and followed the walk.

Soho is at risk of the type of development that will gradually erase what makes Soho a defined area in the city with its own unique character. Books like Cruickshank’s will help prevent this, or will help provide a record of a unique place for the future.

Blogs

On The Marshes – Carol Donaldson

Carol Donaldson is the author of the Nature Girl blog mentioned above, and I purchased the book after reading the blog.

On The Marshes is a record of a journey across north Kent from Gravesend to Whistable whilst coming to terms with the break-up of a long-term relationship.

On the Marshes provides a wonderfully evocative view of the north Kent marshes and rivers, and covers aspects such as the plotland developments – plots purchased by individuals, frequently those escaping London, who built their own home and lived based on what they could find around them.

A good read to really understand this area, and then get out for some walking.

Blogs

Excellent Essex – Gillian Darley

Again, not a London book, but a book which tells the story of a county that borders, and has been influenced by London. A county that has lost many of its original south western towns, villages and lands into Greater London.

The Essex coast has been a holiday destination for Londoners (Southend and Clacton), where many Londoners moved after the war, to new towns such as Basildon, and a county that has a long relationship with the River Thames and North Sea.

The book’s sub-title is “In Praise Of England’s Most Misunderstood County” which is a good summary. Essex has long been the focus of jokes about Essex Girls, Brentwood was a lovely country town on the main A12 into London before TOWIE gave the town a different reputation.

Basildon was one of the key constituencies that signaled the swing to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979, and became known for “Mondeo Man”.

Although these are the aspects of Essex that are frequently in the media, there is far more to Essex. Travel to the north of the county and it is a very different place to the south and Excellent Essex takes the reader through the whole history and geography of the county of Essex.

Blogs

Some Fantastic Place – Chris Difford

Chris Difford was, along with Glenn Tilbrook, one of the original founders of the band Squeeze, and has been responsible for the majority of their lyrics.

Squeeze has long been one of my favourite bands and whenever I hear the opening of Take Me I’m Yours, I am transported back to driving around in my first car with their music playing on an Amstrad car cassette player.

Chris Difford grew up in Greenwich and his dad worked at the gas works on the Greenwich Peninsula. The book is an evocative story of growing up in Greenwich, and starting a band in Greenwich, Blackheath and Deptford. The book also touches on the London music industry, Bryan Ferry and Elvis Costello.

A brilliant read about growing up in south London, and a life in the music industry.

Blogs

Defying Gravity, Jordan’s Story

The book is about Pamela Rooke, or Jordan as she was known as the face of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop SEX at 430 King’s Road. later known as Seditionaries.

Jordan was there at the start of Punk in London, and if what punk was intended to be could be summarised by one single person, then it was probably Jordan.

Jordan played the part of Amyl Nitrate in Derek jarman’s 1978 film Jubilee, a film that portrayed Jarman’s view of punk, and England in the years around the 1977 Royal Jubilee, when Queen Elizabeth I is transported to London to see the decline of the country in the late 1970s. The film is great for a bit of location spotting as it was filmed at many locations around London, including Shad Thames, where Jarman had a studio at Butler’s Wharf.

The book is a brilliant read and brings to life not only Jordan’s story, but also that unique time when punk, music and fashion converged, against the backdrop of a London about to go through a period of considerable change.

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Changes in London’s Population

This year there have been many stories in the media about people moving out of London. The growth in working from home enabled by the ability to work from anywhere with an Internet connection, with many companies seeming to accept that a high degree of home working will become normal in the future.

This has been a rapid acceleration of an existing trend and it will be interesting to see what impact it has on the need for office space, London housing and London’s population in the coming years.

Up until the start of the year, London gave all the impressions of a very busy city. Streets full of people, crowded underground trains where frequently standing was the only option, the West End teeming with people in the evenings, busy cafes, restaurants and pubs.

Lock downs have had a catastrophic impact on so many London businesses in the entertainment and service industries. Add to this the collapse of tourism, and London feels a very different place to this time last year.

Although up until the start of the year, London felt very crowded, in reality London’s population was only catching up to levels last seen at the start of the 1960s.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) publish some fascinating data, and I was recently browsing through some London population data (to pinch the words of Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder – the long winter nights must just fly by), and converting the data to graphs as I find it much easier to see trends using graphical presentation.

The following graph shows population numbers for inner (blue line) and outer (red line) London from 1961 to 2015.

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The graph shows that for inner London there was a fall in population of almost 1 million from 1961 (3.481 million) to 1983 (2.517 million), a fall of around 27%.

The fall across outer London was less dramatic, declining from 4.496 million to 4.202 million in 1988.

A number of factors contributed to such a significant decline across inner London, including:

  • slow rebuild of housing lost during the war
  • closure of industry, and the move of industry outside of inner London
  • slow down in trade on the Thames, containerisation and eventual closure of the inner docks
  • migration to new towns such as Harlow and Basildon

We can see the areas included in the ONS definition of inner London, as well as their individual population movements by graphing each individual area over time as shown in the following graph.

Inner London Population – 1961 to 2015

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The City of London should be at the bottom of each column, however the population of the City is so low compared to the rest of inner London that it is does not show based on the vertical population scale. The population of the City changed from 5,000 in 1961 to 8,760 in 2015, with a low of 4,000 for most of the 1960s.

Whilst many areas of inner London returned to a similar population in 2015 that they had in 1961, there are some variations.

The populations of Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea are still below their 1961 levels. Tower Hamlets and Newham are both above their 1961 levels.

One of the reasons that the population of the City is so low, as well as the City being mainly a business area, it is also the smallest of the areas classed as inner London. The following graph shows the area in square kilometers for each area of inner London.

Inner London – Size of each Borough in 2016

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By comparing the population with the area, we can see the population density of each area of inner London, as shown in the following graph which illustrates the number of people per square kilometer.

Inner London – Population Density in 2015

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In inner London in 2015, Islington was the most densely populated area, with Tower Hamlets not far behind.

Inner London – Changes in Population Density between 1961 and 2015

What is really interesting is to compare the change in population density for each area of inner London between 1961 and 2015, as shown in the following graph where the blue column represents people per square kilometer in 1961 and the brown column represents 2015.

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Islington, whilst being the most densely populated borough in 2015, was more densely populated in 1961.

The highest reduction is in Kensington & Chelsea, which in 1961 was the most densely populated borough, but this had reduced considerably by 2015. Possibly a result of housing policy in the borough, changes in multiple occupancy, housing treated as an investment rather than a home and often left empty etc.

The borough which has increased population density the most is Tower Hamlets. Possibly due to reconstruction after the war, land once occupied by industry and docks now occupied by housing, and that east London has long been the traditional initial destination for immigration into London.

Whilst the population of outer London reduced after 1961, it did to a much smaller degree than inner London, reflecting the different industrial and commercial mix in inner than outer London, as well as a gradual move of population from inner to outer London.

What is marked is the increase in the population of outer London, so that whilst inner London had recovered to 1961 levels by 2015, outer London has seen an increase of over 700,000.

The following graph shows the population changes in outer London from 1961 to 2015.

Outer London Population – 1961 to 2015

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As with inner London, the geographic size of the outer London boroughs varies considerably with Bromley being by far the largest. This does not mean that population size follows geographic size as Bromley has a similar population to the much smaller Ealing.

The following graph compare the size of each outer London borough (in square kilometers):

Outer London – Size of each Borough in 2016

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We can compare population density in the following graph, which charts the number of people per square kilometer for each borough.

Outer London – Population Density in 2015

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Compare the above two graphs. Bromley is by far the largest in land area, but the smaller when defined by population density. Brent has the highest population density with almost 7,500 people per square kilometer.

The following graph compares population density of the outer London boroughs in 1961 (blue column) with 2015 (brown column).

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Where a number of inner London boroughs population density has reduced from 1961 to 2015, all outer London boroughs have increased their population density, reflecting a migration of people from inner to outer London, and perhaps those moving to London preferring to live in the outer rather than the inner London boroughs.

The cost of housing will also drive this change with housing costing slightly less the further from the centre of the city (although still very expensive).

All the above ONS data is from 2015. Numbers have almost certainly increased since then, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years.

Will changes to working patterns influence where people want to live, and will the loss of jobs in the entertainment and service industries result in a long term contraction, or will coffee shops, restaurants, bars and shops return to their former numbers.

Will Brexit have any impact on the businesses that make London their base?

The themes of today’s post may be very different, but they are really about the same thing – exploring and recording how London changes, and the individual experiences of those who come into contact with the city. Whether that is through a long life in the city, having been part of a key period of London’s cultural life, or being part of the counties surrounding London. Individual experiences recorded in a blog or book, or the experience of large populations recorded in the ONS data.

Can I wish all readers a very happy New Year, and hopefully 2021 will turn out to be much better than 2020 and London returns to being the busy, dynamic and diverse city that makes it in my totally unbiased view, the best city in the world.

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A Thames Dolphin at Rotherhithe

The title for this week’s post is a bit deceiving. The Thames dolphin in question is not one of the marine mammals, rather it is a structure in the river which is also called a dolphin.

The definitions for this type of dolphin include a pile, or a collection of piles in the river to which a boat can be moored, or a cluster of piles at the entrance to a dock, and it is this later definition which I suspect applies to the dolphin in my father’s photo at the entrance to the Surrey Lock and Basin in Rotherhithe – photographed in 1947:

Dolphin

The photo was taken from the Thames foreshore, adjacent to the air shaft of the Rotherhithe tunnel, looking across to the Shadwell / Wapping side of the river.

The negative with the photo was in poor condition and took some processing to get to the copy you see above, which unfortunately still has the opposite bank of the river with a rather poor contrast and lack of detail to the buildings.

I could not get down to the foreshore to take a similar photo as the tide was not sufficiently out, so the angle of the 2020 photo is slightly different. The following photo shows that the dolphin can still be seen today, along with some landmarks visible in 1947 on the opposite side of the river.

Dolphin

The following extract is from the 1948 revision of the Ordinance Survey map. The lines converge on the approximate point where my father was standing to take the photo. A blue circle marks the location of the dolphin (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Dolphin

The green circle on the opposite side of the river is the position of the air shaft of the Rotherhithe tunnel which can be seen in the 1947 photo. The centre red arrow shows the alignment of the airshaft in relation to the dolphin.

The arrow on the left points to the church spire that be seen in the 1947 photo. This is the spire of St Mary’s in Cable Street. The spire can also be seen in the 2020 photo, and I photographed the church when I was walking the area a few years ago.

Dolphin

The arrow on the right points to the buildings which can be seen to the right of the dolphin. These are the buildings and cranes of Charringtons Wharf, which were demolished some years ago to be replaced by the large block of flats on the site today. The cranes to the right of the tunnel air shaft in the 2020 photo mark one of the construction sites for the Thames Tideway Tunnel, or Super Sewer.

There is a prominent line of buildings running between the dolphin and the spire of the church. These were buildings along the northern edge of The Highway – buildings that have now been demolished.

The gap in the centre of the line of buildings is open space between The Highway and Glamis Place, with the ruins of a pub to the left.

The entrance to Shadwell Basin is also in the photo, but is hard to see due to the lack of contrast, and the lighting of the scene across the river. The entrance is also at an angle to the river so the northern side of the entrance looks like a continuation of the river wall.

I have marked these features on the original 1947 photo as shown below:

Dolphin

There is one feature in the 1947 photo that I could not locate, however the Britain from Above archive came to the rescue.

The following photo from 1946 shows the Wapping / Shadwell area. The tunnel air shaft is lower left and I have ringed the church. I have written the name of The Highway along the street and the row of buildings along the north side of the street can be seen.

Dolphin

From the church spire, look diagonally to the lower left and you will see a chimney. This is the chimney seen in the 1947 photo and is the feature I could not locate.

Comparing the photo and the OS maps, the chimney looks as if it may have been part of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children.

The following map shows the area today. The lower solid red circle is the point from where the photo was taken, and for reference, the upper red ring is the location of the church (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Dolphin

The entrance to the Surrey Basin can be seen to the right of the lower red circle and the entrance to Shadwell New Basin is on the opposite bank.

The following photo is looking slightly to the west. The air shaft of the tunnel is opposite, and it is strange to imagine the thousands of cars and lorries that are running daily, under the river between where I am standing and the air shaft opposite.

Dolphin

The dolphin has been repaired since the 1947 photo, but still retains the mooring bollard on top.

Across the river, there is a second church spire to the left, this is St Paul’s Shadwell. The white building on the extreme left is the Prospect of Whitby pub.

A close-up view of the air shaft on the north bank of the river. To the left of the air shaft are the Shadwell Dock Stairs, which I wrote about here.

Dolphin

The area behind the northern airshaft is the King Edward VII Memorial Park – a fascinating area which I wrote about here.

The following photo shows the Rotherhithe tunnel air shaft on the south bank of the river, mirroring the design of the structure on the opposite bank.

Dolphin

The location of these airshafts can be seen when travelling through the Rotherhithe tunnel. They are each located where the tunnel bends, and with the walls of the tunnel set back for the infrastructure leading up through the air shaft.

If you look along the river wall in the above photo, you will see steps descending down to the foreshore, which at the time I was there were still partly underwater.

I suspect this was the method my father used to get down to the foreshore to take the 1947 photo, as the steps are also shown on the 1948 Ordnance Survey map.

The entrance to the Shadwell New Basin on the opposite side of the river is almost impossible to see in the 1947 photo. The entrance is at an angle and is still not that obvious today. The following close-up photo shows the entrance to the basin.

Dolphin

The Prospect of Whitby on the northern bank of the river (I can only dream of having a beer there at the moment):

Dolphin

View looking west along the river with the dolphin:

Dolphin

The dolphin is just outside the entrance to the Surrey Lock, which was the western entrance to the Surrey Basin, and the large complex of docks that once occupied the peninsula. The following extract from the 1940 edition of Bartholomew’s Reference Atlas of Greater London shows the considerable size of the docks. The entrance by the dolphin is on the left and labelled Surrey Docks.

Dolphin

The following photo shows more clearly the position of the dolphin and the entrance to the docks, which today have two posts marking the entrance.

Dolphin

The mooring bollard on the top of the dolphin implies that ships could have been moored on the dolphin, however I would have thought a ship moored in that position could have been an obstruction for ships coming in and out of the dock.

Dolphins at the entrance to docks were also used as a type of fender where the dolphin provided something for a ship to gently hit up against, and as an aid to align and position the ship.

At the entrance to a dock this may have helped a ship enter or exit the dock rather than drift further up or down stream.

Whatever the use of the dolphin, I assume it is now redundant as the docks have long since closed, with the majority disappearing under new building, and the entrance from the lock into Surrey Water closed off by Salter Road which runs across the old entrance into the basin.

The entrance does have an interesting base, which appears to be composed of metal plates.

Dolphin

I suspect the design is to reduce the amount of sediment that settles on the base of the lock. The angled plates which run along the centre will result in water draining to left and right as the tide goes out, and the higher flow of water along the edges that this causes reduces the amount of sediment left in the dock.

Facing out of the dock, towards the Thames, the tunnel air shaft is on the left, and a large pub, the Salt Quay, on the right:

Dolphin

Looking in from the river, along the Surrey Lock, and a rolling lift bridge can be seen, carrying Rotherhithe Street across the lock.

Dolphin

The bridge is a rolling lift bridge as it has a large counter weight at one end of the bridge, with a curved framework connecting the counter weight to the deck of the bridge.

Dolphin

When the bridge opens, the counter weight moves to the ground, rolling the deck of the bridge upwards. The following photo shows the bridge in action, with the deck fully raised to allow ships to move from the lock and into the docks.

Dolphin

The above view is looking south-west from the Thames. The chimneys in the background are at the Rotherhithe Gas Works which I covered a couple of weeks ago.

The docks were a prime target for bombing during the last war, and the original bridge was badly damaged in September 1940. Whilst it could continue to provide a road across the dock, it could not lift, so only barges were able to enter, not the usual sea going ships that would have normally entered the docks via this route.

The original bridge was built in 1858 as part of the development of the dock complex, but was finally replaced in 1952 when the new bridge was completed and opened by Viscount Waverley, the chairman of the Port of London Authority.

When the bridge was opened, it was reported that “the people of Bermondsey will again be able to observe the daily spectacle of sea-going ships on their way in and out of this dock entrance”.

The bridge also had a wider roadway than the original bridge, along with improved approaches to the bridge which would help with the substantial volume of road traffic along Rotherhithe Street.

The bridge cost £110,000 to construct, and the fine balance of bridge and counter-weight enabled the 720 tons of the bridge to be raised or lowered in three minutes, by just a 50 horse power electric motor.

Newspaper reports of the time stated that “incorporated in the main structure are 100 tons of cast-iron blocks from an old bridge across the river at Limehouse”. An intriguing statement that I have not had the time to research.

The bridge today sits quietly in an area that those who attended the 1952 opening would be hard pressed to recognise, the area having been significantly redeveloped after the closure of the docks.

Dolphin

The following photo is looking from the bridge, along the Surrey Dock towards where Salter Road now closes off the entrance to the basin. Salter Road being part of the development of the area after the closure of the docks.

Dolphin

The dolphin at the entrance to the Surrey Lock is a reminder of the sea going shipping that once was so common on this part of the river, and that would have either moored on the dolphin, or used it as an aid to enter or leave the dock.

The Surrey Commercial Docks to give the dock complex their full name is an area I have yet to explore. My father took more photos of the area, so hopefully some return visits in 2021.

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Pickfords Wharf and the original Seven Dials Pillar

Pickfords Wharf and the original Seven Dials Pillar. A strange title for this week’s post about two subjects. The only relationship they have is one with London. The original Seven Dials pillar is a follow-up to my post on Seven Dials a couple of week’s ago, and Pickfords Wharf is the subject of the following photo that I took from London Bridge in 1979.

Pickfords Wharf

The same view of Pickfords Wharf from London Bridge, forty one years later, in 2020:

Pickfords Wharf

Much of the south bank of the river between London Bridge and Southwark Bridge is unrecognisable compared to the late 1970s. Some of the outer walls of some buildings have survived, but as can be seen with Pickfords Wharf, where they have, they have been subject to very substantial rebuild.

In my 1979 photo, there are two named buildings on the site. Pickfords Wharf and Cole & Carey.

Pickfords Wharf was originally Phoenix Wharf and comprised four warehouses that had been built and modified at different times over the life of the complex. The original riverside warehouse was built in 1864, however, as can be seen in the 1978 photo, the front of the building does have very different architectural styles, with the section to the right almost looking like an early example of facadism, where the ornate columns and facade have been retained on a modified building behind.

Some of the warehouses of Pickfords Wharf were on the other side of Clink Street to the rear of the building seen in the photo, and included parts of the walls of the original Winchester Palace.

Originally built by wharfingers (an owner or operator of a wharf) Fitch & Cozens, with the wharf being named Phoenix Wharf. The Pickfords name came in 1897 when Pickfords & Co purchased the site and renamed the wharf.

Although the wharf still carries the Pickfords name today, the company only owned the building for twenty four years as Hay’s Wharf Ltd. took over the site in 1921.

Pickfords Wharf was used for the storage of a wide variety of different products over the years. The 1954 edition of the Commercial Motor publication “London Wharves and Docks” has the following details for Pickfords Wharf:

  • Cargo dealt with: General canned goods, sugar
  • Cargo specially catered for: General
  • Maximum cranage: 60 cwt
  • Storage space: 400,000 cubic feet
  • Customs facilities: Sufferance and Warehousing privileges
  • Parking facilities: Yes
  • Nature of berth: Quay
  • Maximum length of ship accommodated: 150 feet
  • Depth at High Water: 17 feet

The building to the left of Pickfords Wharf with the Cole & Carey sign was St. Mary Overy’s Wharf. Originally built in 1882 for a George Doo, for use as a granary.

He would only use the building for eight years as in 1890, Cole & Carey, listed as general wharfingers would take over the building. It was purchased by the company behind Hay’s Wharf in 1948 to add to their adjacent Pickfords Wharf building.

Cole & Carey were still operating at the wharf when the 1954 edition of the Commercial Motor guide was published and the details for the wharf are recorded as:

  • Cargo dealt with: General canned goods, dried fruit
  • Cargo specially catered for: Canned goods
  • Maximum cranage: 25 cwt
  • Storage space: 380,000 cubic feet
  • Customs facilities: Sufferance and Warehousing privileges
  • Parking facilities: Yes
  • Nature of berth: Quay
  • Maximum length of ship accommodated: 60 feet
  • Depth at High Water: 17 feet

Cole & Carey had the benefit that their warehouse was alongside the river and also had a small inlet, St Mary Overy’s Dock alongside.

Both warehouses ceased to be used from the late 1960s, and they were left to slowly decay. There was a fire at the Cole & Carey building in 1979, not long before I took the photo, and the exposed metal frames of the roof, a result of the fire, can be seen.

The Cole & Carey building (St Mary Overy’s Wharf), and the core of Pickfords Wharf were demolished towards the end of 1983. Pickfords Wharf was substantially rebuilt to leave the building we see today, St Mary Overy’s Wharf was not rebuilt.

A wider view of the south bank of the river, east of Southwark Bridge, with Pickfords Wharf in the centre:

Pickfords Wharf

One of the 1950s editions of the Ordnance Survey map shows Pickfords Wharf with St Mary Overy’s Wharf alongside, with St Mary Overy’s Dock. Note the walkways constructed over Clink Street to the warehouses on the southern side of Clink Street which were part of the same warehouse complex (maps ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Pickfords Wharf

The 1894 edition of the Ordnance Survey Map shows the building with its original name of Phoenix Wharf. St Mary Overy’s Wharf is labelled as a Warehouse and is alongside, but is yet to be extended out, and to be integrated with the jetty running along the river facing side of both buildings.

Pickfords Wharf

In 1894, the inlet alongside the warehouse appears to have been named St Saviour’s Dock. I need to research further, however perhaps the name was changed to avoid confusion with the St Saviour’s Dock to the east of Tower Bridge in Bermondsey.

The inlet that was St Mary Overy’s Dock is still there, but is now semi-closed off from the river and the space is used as a dock for the Golden Hinde, the early 1970s replica of the ship that Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the world between 1577 and 1580.

The masts of the ship can just be seen in the following photo:

Pickfords Wharf

The replica Golden Hinde had a remarkable couple of decades sailing, including a circumnavigation of the world and a number of crossings of the Atlantic.

The following photo is of the bow of the Golden Hind, the eastern side of Pickfords Wharf, and some of the new buildings, built to resemble warehouses.

Pickfords Wharf

This is a fascinating area that needs a more detailed post. Winchester Palace could be found here, and the short distance between London and Southwark Bridges form a key part of Southwark’s history.

That will be for a future post, as for today’s post I also wanted to follow-up on my post of a couple of week’s ago on Seven Dials, as I went to find the:

Original Seven Dials Pillar

A couple of week’s ago I wrote about Seven Dials, and the pillar that now stands at the junction of the seven streets. The current pillar is a recent replica, as the original had been removed around 1773 as it had become the focal point for so called undesirables and the Paving Commissioners ordered the removal of the pillar to prevent this nuisance.

The remains of the demolished pillar were stored at the home of the architect James Paine, at Sayes Court, Addlestone.

In 1822, the demolished pillar was re-erected at Weybridge, Surrey, and last week I was in the area so a short diversion took me to the place where the original, 1694, Seven Dials pillar can still be seen today:

Pickfords Wharf

The pillar stands appropriately on Monument Green, alongside the street that leads to Thames Street, which leads down to as you have probably guessed, the River Thames.

Pickfords Wharf

An information panel provides some history of the original location of the pillar (note the map of Seven Dials), and the reason for its relocation to a green in Weybridge, which was to commemorate local resident “Her Royal Highness The Most Excellent and Illustrious Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherina Duchess of York” who lived in the parish for upwards of thirty years, and died on the 6th of August 1820.

Pickfords Wharf

Panels added to the base of the pillar also explain why the pillar was erected in Weybridge:

Pickfords Wharf

The Duchess of York came to be living in Weybridge as her marriage to Prince Frederick, Duke of York was not a long term success and there were no children which as is often the case with royal marriages, having children appears to have been the main reason for the marriage. They separated towards the end of the 1790s, and the Duchess moved to Oatlands in Weybridge, a house owned by the Duke of York.

Pickfords Wharf

Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherina, Duchess of York and Albany  by A. Gabrielli, after Edward Francis Cunningham (Calze) stipple engraving, published 1792 NPG D8581 © National Portrait Gallery, London

One of the panels at the base of the pillar implies that she must have been charitable to the poor of the parish as “Ye poor suppress the mournful sigh, her spirit is with Christ on high”.

Pickfords Wharf

When plans were being developed for the renovation of Seven Dials in the 1980s, which included the return of a pillar at the junction of the seven streets, attempts were made to move the original pillar back from Weybridge, however the local council were against the move and refused to allow the pillar to leave.

Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherina Duchess Of York, a Prussian Princess who married a British Prince, is buried in St James Church, Weybridge, and still commemorated 200 years after her death by a pillar that was originally erected in the late 17th century development of Seven Dials by Thomas Neale.

Pickfords Wharf and the original Seven Dials pillar – two very different subjects for today’s post, but share some similarities in that they have both survived an amount of demolition, and they are now serving very different purposes to those which were intended at the time of their creation.

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St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell – A Brief Introduction

Walk the side streets of Clerkenwell between Smithfield and Clerkenwell Road, and you will come across a rather ornate gate, standing over a narrow walkway between St John’s Lane and St John’s Square. This is St John’s Gate:

St John's Gate

The reason for the Gate’s existence in Clerkenwell goes back to the founding of a hospital in Jerusalem around the year 1080.

Jerusalem has long been a pilgrimage destination, and in the 11th century a number of Benedictine monks founded the Order of St John and established a hospital to care for the sick of all faiths, and for pilgrims after the long and arduous journey. The work of the Order within a hospital led to them being called Hospitallers. Threats from Muslim forces to retake Jerusalem resulted in the Hospitallers taking on a military role, along with the continuing provision of a hospital and care for the sick.

The Hospitallers expanded across Europe, and their presence in England starts in the early decades of the 12th century with some small grants of land, leading to the foundation of the Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in 1144 when 10 acres of land was granted to Jordan de Bricet in Clerkenwell.

From the construction of a church between 1144 and 1160, the Priory grew to become powerful and wealthy. The ten acres of land was divided into an Inner and Outer Precinct with important buildings such as the Priory Church, the Prior’s Hall and the Great Hall within the Inner Precinct. The Outer Precinct included the houses of the knights of the Order, tenements for servants and workers, gardens along with the buildings needed to maintain an almost self sufficient operation.

The priory flourished until the 16th century, when Henry VIII’s efforts to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn led to the king declaring himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, followed by the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when the Crown took control of the buildings, lands and income of religious establishments across the country.

The Clerkenwell priory was taken by the Crown, some officials of the priory were allowed to retain their houses, others were sold or granted to favourites of the king, and the buildings and land of the priory began the process of being broken-up, sold, demolished and rebuilt, that has resulted in this area of Clerkenwell that we see today.

The outline of the priory site can still be seen in the pattern of streets bordering the area.

St John’s Street formed the eastern boundary, Turnmill Street the western boundary, with Cowcross Street in the south and Aylesbury Street / Clerkenwell Green forming the north boundary. I have marked these on the map extract below, including the division of the inner and outer precincts  (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

St John's Gate

St John’s Lane formed the main approach to the inner precinct from the south, and the blue rectangle in the wall of the inner precinct is St John’s Gate.

There may have been some form of a gate at the southern entrance to St John’s Lane (shown by the lower blue rectangle). Research and excavations by the Museum of London Archaeology Service found mentions of tenements and possible evidence of a timber gatehouse (MoLAS Monograph 20 – Excavations at the priory of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem).

The River Fleet, roughly along the alignment of Farringdon Road was at the western boundary of the site, and St John’s Street which ran up to Islington and was one of the main northern routes out of the City of London formed the eastern boundary.

At the time of the founding of the priory, the area was still mainly countryside, marshy land, springs and streams. The priory almost certainly had its own water supply, with a small tributary of the River Fleet, the Little Torrent rising at the south west corner of the Inner Precinct and flowing through the Outer Precinct to the Fleet.

The original boundaries of the Priory stand out more in William Morgan’s 1682 Map of London which show the area before Clerkenwell Road cut through:

St John's Gate

St John’s Gate can be seen at the end of St John’s Lane, with the Inner Precinct of St John’s Priory above. This is the area that now forms St John’s Square. Just above the number 12 on the map, to the left of St John’s Lane can be seen one of the large houses and gardens that once lined the street leading up to the gate.

I wrote about Albion Place a few weeks ago. This street runs from St John’s Lane through what was the Outer Precinct.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries marked the end of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (apart from a very brief resurrection during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I between 1553 and 1558). The original Order continues to this day, headquartered in Rome.

From the 12th century, the original Order had been shifting through southern Europe as military success and loss forced a change. After the loss of Jerusalem, they moved to Acre, then through Cyprus, Rhodes, Malta and finally Rome.

The last prior of the Order in Clerkenwell was William Weston. He appears to have been in favour with Henry VIII for cooperating with the handover of the Clerkenwell priory and was awarded a significant pension of £1,000 a year, however apparently he died on the day that the priory was taken by the Crown.

Over the following centuries, the Gate was used for a number of different purposes.

After the dissolution, the Inner Precinct appears to have been occupied by the Crown’s Office of Tents and Revels, with the rooms of the Gate being occupied by Crown officers.

The building began an association with the printing trade in the 1670s when a printing press was established in the Gate. Matthew Poole wrote a significant commentary on the bible whilst living in the Gate in the late 1660s and 1670s.

Richard Hogarth, the father the artist, opened Hogarth’s Coffee House in the Gate at the start of the 18th century. His unique selling point for the coffee house was that it was a place for gentlemen to meet and converse in Latin. It continued as a coffee house through the 1720s, but under different ownership and later became part of a tavern – the Jerusalem Tavern.

By 1730, one Edward Cave was living at St John’s Gate and it was from here that he established the Gentleman’s Magazine.

The Gentleman’s Magazine used an image of the Gate on its title page, and Edward Cave went so far as to use the image of the gate on the side of his coach, rather than a coat of arms:

St John's Gate

Photograph by MichaelMaggs; original author “SYLVANUS URBAN, Gent”., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Johnson had a small room in the Gate during the publication of the magazine to which he was a contributor whilst also working on one of the best known early editions of the English Dictionary.

Cave died in 1754 and the Gentleman’s Magazine ended publication from St John’s Gate in 1781.

Throughout the rest of the 18th and first half of the 19th century, the Gate went through a number of different uses including being used for storage and providing space for a parish watch house.

By the 1840s, St John’s Gate was in a serious state of repair, and was considered a dangerous structure, and the new Metropolitan Buildings Act enabled an order to be served on the owners of the gate that it had to be either repaired or demolished.

An appeal was made for funds to restore the Gate, but this met with limited success. The City Press of March 16th 1861 reported that: “In 1851 the gate was threatened with total ruin. Repairs were essential to keep it standing. Mr W. Petit-Griffith proposed a subscription for its restoration. This unfortunately he failed to effect; yet with the aid of a few lovers of antiquity, he was able to strengthen the defective portion of the structure, and avert the ruin which seemed inevitable”.

During the mid 19th century, the history of the Gate seems to have attracted a number of societies who would use the large room directly above the arch. The St John’s Gate Debating Society met regularly at the Gate, although in newspaper reports of their meetings there seems to have been more “toasting” than debating. The Gate was also used by the imaginatively named “Friday Knights” as a meeting place – it does seem to have attracted a number of Victorian societies attempting to recreate a link with the medieval foundations of the Order.

The main change to the recent history of St John’s Gate was during the later part of the 19th century when it became the home for a modern version of the Order of St John.

The Victorian workplace was a highly dangerous place and accidents were common, with limited protection for workers and only extremely basic healthcare.

William Montagu, the 7th Duke of Manchester, Sir John Furley and Sir Edmund Lechmere identified a need for an organisation that would provide medical support for workers. They formed the modern Order of St John, and it was granted a royal charter by Queen Victoria to become a Royal Order of Chivalry.

Edmund Lechmere purchased St John’s Gate to be used as the headquarters of the new order, and an extensive series of renovations were carried out.

In 1877, the Order formed the St John Ambulance Organisation, who provided training and first aid equipment. This led to the founding of the St John Ambulance Brigade as a volunteer organisation, trained and equipped to provide medical support.

As well as restoring the main gate, the late 19th century restorations included the construction of a new building, in a similar style and joined to the gate, along the eastern edge of St John’s Lane.

In the following photo, the Gate is to the left, and the new extension to the Gate is visible, with a large door at ground level, sized to take ambulances of the St John Ambulance Brigade.

St John's Gate

Returning to the Gate, and there are a number of shields above the arch:

St John's Gate

These are, from left to right:

  • the arms of Henry VII who was the King at the time the Gate was built
  • the arms of Edward VII, the 1st Grand Prior of the modern order
  • the arms of Queen Victoria, the 1st sovereign head of the modern order
  • the arms of Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence, Edward’s son
  • the arms of Thomas Docwra who was responsible for the rebuild / construction of the Gate in 1504

Walking through the arch in the Gate, and there is a plaque on the wall which gives some additional detail on the history of St John’s Gate:

St John's Gate

The plaque refers to the original gatehouse being burnt down by Wat Tyler during the Peasants Revolt. There is now some doubt as to whether there was much destruction at the Priory during the Peasants Revolt, however the Prior at the time did come to a sticky end.

The Prior was Sir Robert Hale (also written as Hales), known as Hob the Robber for his collection of the Poll Tax through his role as Lord High Treasurer. The unfairness of the Poll Tax, where the tax was the same for any individual regardless of their ability to pay, provoked the Peasants Revolt in 1381.

Looking for Hale, the rebels camped on nearby Clerkenwell Green and possibly ransacked part of the priory. Hale had taken refuge in the Tower of London along with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury. They were found in the tower by the rebels, carried out to Tower Hill and beheaded.

Walking through the arch, up to Clerkenwell Road and we can view St John’s Gate from the north:

St John's Gate

The Gate would have once presented a more imposing appearance with a taller archway.

Over the centuries, the road has been heightened by around three feet. Evidence for this can be seen in two doors on either side of the northern side of the gate (in the side towers so not visible in the above photo).

The doorway on the eastern side appears to be much smaller or part buried in the ground:

St John's Gate

The doorway on the opposite side is full height:

St John's Gate

The full height doorway was rebuilt in 1866 with the door on the opposite side left in its half buried position.

Photos and prints of St John’s Gate show how the Gate and surroundings, have changed over the years. The following photo is from the late 19th century publication “The Queen’s London” and shows the southern face of the Gate from St John’s Lane.

St John's Gate

Another photo of the Gate, dated 1885, and looking through towards Clerkenwell Road.

St John's Gate

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: p5369514

Underneath the name sign W.C. Gay are the words Wines and Spirits, indicating the type of business that occupied the Gate during the 19th century.

The south face of the Gate in 1829 (©Trustees of the British Museum):

St John's Gate

All these photos and prints show the archway through the Gate being open for traffic. Today, bollards prevent any traffic passing through, with the route being for pedestrians only. The gate was closed for traffic due to the narrow width and low height of the arch sides, as well as the potential for damage to the Gate from the vibrations caused by traffic passing through.

The following drawing dates from 1720, and again shows the south side of the Gate, facing St John’s Lane (©Trustees of the British Museum):

St John's Gate

The 1504 rebuild of the Gate by Thomas Docwra had included crenellations, or battlements along the top of the gate, however as shown in the drawing above, by 1720 these had been removed and a more traditional sloping roof had been installed, presumably to provide the room at the top of the Gate with additional height and roof space.

The sign above the arch reads “Old Jerusalem Tavern – R. Comberbatch”, from the days when a tavern occupied the Gate.

The following print is one of the earliest views of St John’s Gate. After Wenceslaus Hollar, the print is from the mid 17th century, and shows how impressive the Gate must have been before the construction of the buildings of St John’s Lane and Square which would later crowd around the gate.

St John's Gate

Credit: Gate of the Hospital of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, Clerkenwell, London, surrounded by thatched domestic buildings. Engraving after W. Hollar. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The following print, also after Hollar and from the mid 17th century, show some of the surviving buildings of the Priory:St John's Gate

Credit: Hospital of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, Clerkenwell, London. Engraving after W. Hollar. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The views are looking from the south east of the Gate and as well as the gate, show the (top right) remains of the western front of the chapel of the House of Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, and (lower illustration), the main House of Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem.

The print gives a very good impression of how impressive the buildings of the Priory must have been.

As mentioned earlier in the post, one of the activities that took place within the Gate was a coffee house, with Richard Hogarth being the first proprietor of such an establishment, and the following print shows a coffee-room in St John’s Gate:

St John's Gate

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PZ_FI_01_091

Although an early 16th century reconstruction, St John’s Gate is still a tangible link with the medieval priory that once occupied 10 acres of land in Clerkenwell. We can still follow the boundaries of the Priory in the streets of Clerkenwell and see where the inner and Outer Precincts were located.

St John’s Square is home to the Priory Church of the Order. A post war rebuild following wartime destruction of the earlier church, however below the church is a crypt with some evidence going back to the 12th century.

St John’s Gate is still home to the modern Order of St John, and the St John Ambulance Brigade which continue their work to this day, and, and during the current pandemic, the organisation has taken on its biggest mobilisation during peacetime.

There is a museum in St John’s Gate and tours are given of the building. Although closed at the moment, St John’s Gate is well worth a visit to discover an intriguing part of London’s history.

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Rotherhithe Gas Works and a soon to be lost Gas Holder

If you have a gas boiler or cooker, the chances are that the gas you use could come from the North Sea, Norway, or via ship carried liquefied natural gas from countries such as Qatar, Russia and Trinidad to the terminal on the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary. When gas started to be used as an energy source in the 19th century, the production of gas was very local to consumers, and for this week’s post I am exploring one such production facility, the Rotherhithe Gas Works.

I have marked the location for today’s post by the red star in the following map  (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

Rotherhithe Gas Works

That is not a bridge across the Thames at the point of the star, it is the way Openstreetmap shows the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

The reason for the post on the Rotherhithe Gas Works is because of a photo taken by my father in 1948. The following photo shows what is probably open space following the demolition of bomb damaged houses, with in the background, parts of two large gas holders.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

I wanted to find the location of the photograph. I knew from my father’s notes that the location was Rotherhithe, but not from where the photo had been taken. The two gas holders were obvious clues, however the area is very different today, so I started off with the 1950 edition of the Ordnance Survey map of the area.

I have copied the photo below, added the map extract and marked up key points shown in both photo and map, and the approximate location where my father was standing to take the photo. I needed to rotate the map to get a similar orientation to the photo, so north is at the bottom and south at the top of the map.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The red oval marks a semidetached pair of houses. To the left of these houses, there appears to be a tall wooden fence, and next to the fence, a terrace of older houses (you may need to click on the photo and enlarge to see the details of these clearly). These are the terrace houses shown by the green oval on the map.

In the background are the two large gas holders. The one on the right appears to be a larger circumference than the holder on the left, which matches both photo and map. Part of the gas holder on the left is obscured by a large building, again the same in both photo and map.

Extending the alignment of these features back, and they converge at a point on a street which again aligns with the photo as part of a street is in the lower right corner.

Rotating the map back to the correct orientation, and the street is Neston Street, marked below with the red star. The terrace of houses on the right of the street ends in a blank space on the map which corresponds with the 1948 photo (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Rotherhithe Gas Works

So it should be simple to find the location today? Not very, as the area has changed so much. In the 1950 map above, All the large buildings between the round gas holders and the River Thames at top left, were part of the Rotherhithe Gas Works. To the left, there was some housing, along with other industrial buildings, and the area had also suffered bomb damage.

The Rotherhithe Gas Works closed in 1959, and over the last few decades, the area has been considerably redeveloped with new housing now covering all the original site of the gas works (with one exception). Roads have changed, and Neston Street has disappeared.

Marking Neston Street on today’s map of the area (red line) allows the location of the 1948 photo to be identified (red star),

Rotherhithe Gas Works

I needed to visit the site to see the area today, and to find one of the two remaining elements of the Rotherhithe Gas Works infrastructure, one that may not be around for too much longer.

I walked along Rotherhithe Street from the west, and walked up Canon Beck Road (to the left of the red line), a road that appears on both today’s and the 1950 map.

Just over half way along Canon Beck Road is a short entrance road to a residential square, Clifton Place. This is shown in the photo below:

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Neston Street would have run, left to right along the front and over part of the houses at the far end of the photo. To take the 1948 photo, my father was probably standing somewhere around the green and blue bins to the left of the photo.

Looming in the back of the above photo is one of the two remaining parts of the Rotherhithe Gas Works – the gas holder also seen to the left of the 1948 photo.

As well as visiting the site of my father’s photo, the gas holder was the second reason for wanting to visit, as it may well be soon disappearing as a local landmark, and a reminder of the industrial history of this part of Rotherhithe.

I walked up to Brunel Road. The terrace of houses along Brunel Road are not part of the redevelopment of the last few decades, they are much earlier. The gas holder can be seen in the background.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Walking along Brunel Road up to the location of the gas holder, to find the one remaining holder from the gas works, sitting in the space that was also once occupied by the second gas holder in the 1948 photo.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The remaining gas holder may not be here for long. Plans have been submitted for a complete redevelopment of the site which includes the land occupied by the gas holder, and the surrounding land.

The work will involve the demolition of the gas holder, and the infill of the tank below the gas holder, and the tanks below ground of the gas holders that have already been demolished.

Considerable work will involve removing contamination of the land and the move of operational gas piping and controls that still occupy the site.

The current plans appear to cover the construction of:

  • 40 dwellings for social rent
  • 39 dwellings for discount market rent
  • 198 private dwellings

The plans include the intention “To celebrate the character of the site and its industrial heritage”, which as far as I can see runs to “Balconies and stairways take reference from the industrial metal work” and “Pitched roofs reference the storage sheds associated with the Surrey Water Docks” along with the use of the colour red to accentuate certain features to recall the colour of the existing gas holder.

There is a web site for the proposed development, which includes presentations on the proposed work. It can be found under the name of the development Rotherhithe Holder Station.

A view of the gas holder and the surrounding land which is in-scope of the proposed development:

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The history of the Rotherhithe Gas Works is complex, and tells the story of the consolidation of the local gas companies throughout the 19th century and nationalisation in the 20th century.

Using a number of resources (which I will list at the end of the post), I have attempted to put together a graphical history of the Rotherhithe Gas Works, their ownership, and mergers with other gas companies. Be aware that there are various conflicting dates for some events, and also definition of a date, for example when a gas works became operational, the incorporation of a company by Act of Parliament etc.

Any corrections would be appreciated.

The following graphic shows how the Rotherhithe Gas Works (starting at left and highlighted by the red dotted line) integrated with London’s gas companies through to closure in 1959.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The first gas works in Rotherhithe seem to have commenced construction by Stephen Hutching in around 1849, with the works becoming part of the Surrey Consumers Gas Company, a company incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1854.

In the mid 19th century there were many concerns about the quality of the gas provided to consumers and the cost, with companies having a monopoly within their local supply area. An 1849 article in The Era titled “Gas Monopolists In A Fever”  talks about the need for gas companies who can supply gas “free from sulphureted hydrogen, acid and ammonia” and the extortionate price charged with upwards of 15 shillings per 1,000 cubic feet, where independent calculations estimate that gas can be produced using modern methods for 2 shillings per 1,000 cubic feet.

The Surrey Consumers Gas Company merged with the South Metropolitan Gas Company in 1879, which brought together two gas companies serving south and south east London.

In 1881, the South Metropolitan purchased a large area of land on the Greenwich Peninsula and started the construction of the gas works which would go on to be one of London’s major gas producing centres for many years.

The South Metropolitan Gas Company would continue to integrate other, smaller companies, including the Phoenix Gas Company based in Bankside in 1880, the Consumers Gas Company in Woolwich and the Equitable Gas Company in Pimlico, both in 1885.

Probably because of the growth of sites such as the Greenwich Peninsula and Rotherhithe, the South Metropolitan closed and sold off sites at Woolwich and Bankside.

Reading newspaper references to London’s gas companies throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, there are very many references to the monopoly position of these private companies, the cost of gas and frequently the quality of the gas, and pollution from the gas producing works.

In January 1860 the Surrey Consumers Gas Company were at Southwark Police court being charged by the Bermondsey vestry under the Nuisance Removal Act “for that they, in the manufacture of gas on their premises at Rotherhithe, did, on or about the 16th inst. cause an intolerable nuisance to exist as to be dangerous and injurious to the inhabitants of the parish of Bermondsey”.

The issue in January 1860 seems to have been a considerable amount of ammonia in the gas supply which had not been removed by the purifiers at the Rotherhithe gas works, and was causing a very bad smell, and health problems to those in Bermondsey who consumed the gas.

In 1875 at the half yearly meeting of the Surrey Consumers Gas Company, the news reports stated that the meeting “must have been attended with considerable interest by the fortunate individuals who hold shares therein. They have been too long accustomed to their unfailing profit of 10 per cent per annum. The balance sheet was as good as had ever been issued by the company”.

Consumer groups were frequently formed and south London’s vestries were often complaining about the costs and quality of gas, and there were many arguments that such companies should be publicly rather than privately owned.

London’s gas consumers would have to wait until 1949 for this to happen, when the countries gas companies were nationalised by the post war Labour government and the South Metropolitan Gas Company along with other London gas companies were merged into local gas boards under public ownership.

Ownership of gas provision came full circle when the nationalised gas board was privatised in 1986 as British Gas, and since then many of the arguments about the cost of gas are very similar to those in 19th century newspapers.

The production of gas was a very dirty business. Coal was heated in a furnace, which produced a range of gases including hydrogen and carbon monoxide. These gases were passed through a condenser where solids and liquids such as tar would be removed, before passing through a purifier where impurities such as sulpher and ammonia would be removed.

The gas was then fed to the gas holders ready for distribution at pressure to gas consumers.

An impression of the interior of the Rotherhithe Gas Works can be had from the following artwork dated 1918, with women working in the “retort” area (retorts are the furnaces where coal was heated to produce gas).

Rotherhithe Gas Works


 Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/105

Work at the Rotherhithe gas works was dangerous and there are newspaper accounts of accidents within the works. For example, when one of the gas holders was being built in 1890, a labourer named Barnes, aged 23, working for the contractors Clacton & Son of Leeds, died after falling twenty feet to the base of the holder.

Workers at the gas works had the Rotherhithe Gas Works Institute, and in October 1894, five crews from the institute raced on the Thames from the coal jetty at the gas works to Deptford Creek.

Discovery of North Sea gas in the 1960s resulted in the replacement of so called Town Gas from gas works such as that at Rotherhithe, by gas piped from below the North Sea. Although Rotherhithe has already closed in 1959, the majority of coal based gas works in the country had closed by the 1980s.

The lone gas holder at Rotherhithe now stands as an isolated reminder of this period of south London industrial history.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The gas holder stands next to the remains of another of the areas lost industries. This is the Surrey Basin, one of the few reminders of the large area of docks that once occupied this area of Rotherhithe. The towers of the Isle of Dogs are in the background.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The following photo is from Salter Road, a road that did not exist when the Rotherhithe gas works were in operation. The space in front of the camera, and the space occupied by the houses behind the trees was the space covered by the buildings of the gas works, which fed gas to the gas holders which are to the left of where I was standing to take the photo.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Crossing Salter Road and looking back at the gas holder, which now supports mobile phone antennae’s at the very top.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The following map from 1895 shows three gas holders with the main buildings of the Rotherhithe Gas Works to their north. There were a total of four gas holders over the life of the gas works (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Of the three shown in the map above, one was destroyed by war time bombing. I suspect that this was the smaller holder between the two outer holders, as it is not shown in the 1950 map, or in my father’s photo. The larger of the two gasholders was demolished at the same time as the rest of Rotherhithe gas works in the 1960s and 70s, leaving only the holder that remains today.

Apart from the gas holder, there is part of the site wall remaining alongside the Surrey Basin. Another part of the gas works infrastructure that we can see today is shown in the above map. If you look at the very top centre of the map there is a pier extending into the River Thames.

This was the pier used by ships bringing coal to the gas works, and looking at the map, you can see the conveyor system that carried coal from the pier, over Rotherhithe Street, to the retorts where the coal would be heated to produce gas.

The Rotherhithe Gas Works pier remains today. The view looking west:

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Looking east along the river with the gas works pier, and the round air shaft building for the Rotherhithe Tunnel behind the pier on the right.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The Rotherhithe Tunnel was built under part of the site of the gas works, and during Parliamentary inquiries into the tunnel, the South Metropolitan Gas Company objected to the construction of the tunnel. Mr. George Livesey, chairman of the gas company stated in his evidence that “the proposed tunnel would pass under a corner of the works of the gas company where they had important buildings, retort houses, coalhouses, and so forth. These structures were of considerable weight, and the foundations were thoroughly sound. If there was any disturbance to the foundations – which were taken down to the gravel – it would put the retort house out of use, and if that happened in winter time it would be a very serious matter.

Pumping operations such as would have to be carried out by the County Council in constructing their tunnel might be a source of serious damage to the company’s works. The gas tanks were set into deep excavations full of water, and if this water and the sand in the foundations were interfered with the results would be that the tanks would leak”

it appears that the company had suffered damage to their operations on the Greenwich Peninsula when the Blackwall tunnel had been built, and they had not received any compensation for this damage, and they wanted a clause in the bill for the Rotherhithe tunnel to ensure they received compensation for any damage to the Rotherhithe works.

The statement about the gas tanks being set into deep excavations, full of water explains why the site today is a complex site to prepare for new building. The tank below ground of the existing gas holder is still in place, as is the tank of the demolished gas holder which was simply capped at the time. These tanks will need to be drained of polluted water and sludge and the hole refilled ready for building above.

I am not sure what the current state of the proposals for the site development are, I suspect that COVID has delayed the process.

Whilst there is an obvious need for more housing across London, it is a shame that another part of London’s industrial history will be disappearing.

This post has covered the history of the gas companies and the Rotherhithe gas works at a very superficial level, this is the problem with a weekly blog, I can only cover topics to a limited level.

The National Archives have a brief summary of the history of each gas company. Use the search box on their site to search for a company. The Early London Gas Industry site by Mary Mills is a fantastic resource covering the gas industry in London.

Although the area has changed significantly since 1948, I am pleased to have found the location of another of my father’s photos. Rotherhithe and Bermondsey is an area I will be returning to in the future.

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Sans Walk, a Fenian Outrage and the Edge of London

There are three photos in my father’s collection that I have not been able to identify. They were labelled “Sans Walk area”. Sans Walk is in Clerkenwell, and the first photo shows what appears to be an empty shell of a building, probably damaged during the war.

Sans Walk

The second photo shows a corner house, in good condition and still occupied, with a lovely street lamp on the corner of the building:

Sans Walk

The third and final photo shows part of a terrace of houses, with a streetlamp and bollards in the foreground.

Sans Walk

No street names, or any other identifiable features to help locate the photos.

I thought if I walked the area around Sans Walk, I should be able to identify some of the locations. I had no idea whether the houses in the photos had been restored or demolished, but armed with printed copies of the photos I set off to walk the area on an early Autumn day.

Although I could not find the locations of the photos, what I did discover was an area packed full of history, and that once formed the edge of London as the city gradually expanded to the north.

The following map shows the places covered in the rest of the post (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

Sans Walk

Sans Walk is the nearly horizontal street in the centre of the map. I did walk the rest of the streets around Sans Walk, but this post was getting rather long with just the stops shown.

I started in Clerkenwell Close, opposite the Horse Shoe pub, a very traditional pub that probably dates back to the 18th century. The earliest written records I could find date to 1824 when a newspaper report referred to an inquest into a suicide which was held in the Horse Shoe.

Sans Walk

This area of Clerkenwell is full of narrow streets. Some new buildings intrude, but many 18th and 19th century buildings survive, along with warehouses and factories from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Looking east along Clerkenwell Close:

Sans Walk

Clerkenwell Close is a strange street as it consists of a number of branches. Starting at Clerkenwell Green, it runs north-west, up to Pear Tree Court and the Clerkenwell Close Peabody Estate, with the branch I am walking along turning off and running up to Bowling Green Lane and Corporation Row. At one point the street runs parallel to a pedestrian alley, both called Clerkenwell Close, and indicative of how the area has developed as large warehouses replaced earlier streets, alley and buildings.

Sans Walk

New buildings had been added, but they are generally at the same height as the existing buildings, so despite the architectural and material changes, they blend in. Providing they are in keeping with the scale of the area, and there is a justification to replace rather than restore the  original building, it is good to have new buildings. The streets in the area have buildings from the last few centuries and 21st century additions are part of the continuous development of London.

Sans Walk

The above building was built on the corner of the playground of a Victorian school. The curving wall at street level retains a plaque recording the gift of Sir Robert Wood to the parish in 1844. I suspect this refers to the land:

Sans Walk

We are still in Clerkenwell Close, and the following building tells of the late 19th century expansion of London schools and the London School Board.

Sans Walk

The London School Board was responsible for the development of many of the large, brick, late 19th century schools that can still be found across London. As well as their construction, the London School Board was also responsible for their operation, and the supply of all the goods and materials needed to fit out, and keep a school running.

The Board consolidated the process of standardisation and supply, and one of the methods used was large central warehouses. The buildings in Clerkenwell Close were built between 1895 and 1897 as warehouses for school furniture, stationery and needlework supplies.

The growth in the volume of space needed grew in the early 20th century, and in 1920 an extra floor was added to the top of the Stationery and Needlework warehouse on the right of the above photo, and this addition is still visible in the change of brick colour from red/orange to  a brown brick for the 20th century addition of the top floor.

In the above photo, the furniture store was on the left, and the Stationery and Needlework departments were on the right, and these functions are still recorded in stone, above the doors.

Sans Walk

The initials at the top are those of the London School Board.

One of the schools that the warehouse would have supplied is directly opposite:

Sans Walk

The school was the Hugh Myddelton School, built by the London School Board in 1893 and with the distinction of being the only London School Board school opened by a member of the Royal family after it was opened by the Prince of Wales in December 1893.

Such was the importance of the visit of the Prince of Wales that the London School Board allocated £100 towards preparations for the visit, which caused some consternation as the money was thought better spent on education.

In his opening speech, the Prince of Wales said that the London School Board had contributed to a “marked advance in education, diminution in crime and an undoubted increase in general intelligence”.

Lesson in the Hugh Myddleton School in 1906:

 

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_02_0208_3943

Drill in the open area outside the school, also 1906:

Sans Walk

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_02_0208_68_4984

When opened, the school was the largest and most expensive built by the London School Board. The school had a number of special departments, including the Hugh Myddleton School for the Deaf. The site on which the school stands has an unusual history.

From 1845, the space occupied by the school had been the site of the Middlesex House of Detention, built as a short stay prison due to overcrowding in other prisons, the Middlesex House of Detention was demolished in 1886.

Some of the reception cells of the prison were in the basement, and these survived the demolition of the main building and were incorporated in the basement of the Hugh Myddelton School, and are presumably still there.

The school closed in 1971, was a Further Education College for the next couple of decades before being sold for development into flats and offices in 1999.

The site of the school, when occupied by the Middlesex House of Detention was the site of a bomb explosion in December 1867 reported extensively as the Fenian Outrage in the newspapers of the time.

This took place at the perimeter wall of the prison which ran along the northern edge of the site, in Corporation Street:

Sans Walk

The Fenians was another name for the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organisation formed in the 1850s to fight for an independent, democratic Ireland.

The bomb was an attempt to free Ricard O’Sullivan Burke and Joseph Casey who had been arrested earlier regarding Burke’s attempts to purchase arms and ammunition in Birmingham, and a previous attempt to free a prisoner in transit, when a guard had been killed.

The view along Corporation Row in the immediate aftermath of the explosion:

Sans Walk

The Illustrated London News carried the following report of the explosion:

“The whole neighbourhood of Clerkenwell was startled at a quarter to four on Friday afternoon by an explosion, which resembled an earthquake. The houses were shaken violently, the windows in many cases were broken, and in some instances persons were thrown to the ground by the violence of the concussion. The scene of the explosion proved to be the wall of the House of Detention, opposite Corporation-row, some sixty feet of which were knocked down, and it was not long before the discovery was made that numerous persons were seriously, and some fatally injured, and that the calamity had been wilfully caused. It was at once attributed to the Fenians, the motive alleged being a desire to rescue Burke and Casey, who are confined in the prison, and facts which have since come to light show that this theory is the correct one.

The clearest account of what actually took place is given by a boy about thirteen years of age, named John Abbott, who is now in St Batholomew’s Hospital, happily not very much hurt.

This youth who lived in Corporation-row, says that at about a quarter to four o’clock he was standing at Mr Young’s door, No 5, when he saw a large barrel close to the wall of the prison, and a man leave the barrel and cross the road. 

Shortly afterwards the man returned with a long squib in each hand. One of these he gave to some boys who were playing in the street, and the other he thrust into the barrel. One of the boys was smoking and he handed the man a light, which the man applied to the squib. The man stayed a short time until he saw the squib began to burn, and then he ran away. A policeman ran after him, and when the policeman arrived opposite No 5, the thing went off.

The boy saw no more after that, as he himself was covered in bricks and mortar. The man, he says, was dressed something like a gentleman. He had on a brown overcoat and black hat, and had light hair and whiskers. He should know him again if he saw him. 

There was a white cloth over the barrel, which was black, and when the man returned with the squib he partly uncovered the barrel, but did not wholly remove the cloth. There were several men and women in the street at the time, and children playing. Three little boys were standing near the barrel at the time. Some of the people ran after the man who lighted the squib.

The effects of the explosion were soon visible in all directions. The windows of the prison itself, of coarse glass more than a quarter of an inch thick, were to a large extent broken, and the side of the building immediately facing the outer wall in which the breach was made, and about 150 feet from it, bears the marks of the bricks which were hurled against it by the explosion. The wall surrounding the prison is about 25 feet high, 2 feet 3 inches thick at the bottom, and about 14 inches thick at the top.

As to the number of persons injured it was impossible for some hours to learn anything satisfactory. It was found, however, that something like fifty at least had been hurt, and that two or three were killed. Thirty six of the sufferers were removed to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where three died in the course of the evening, and six to the Royal Free Hospital in Gray’s Inn Road. Of the wounded some were mere infants, and the husband of a women, who has since died of injuries she sustained, lies in St Bartholomew’s; shockingly bruised and prostrated. Others are missing”.

In the following days, 12 were confirmed to have died in the explosion, with very many injuries.

A number of Fenian sympathisers were arrested, but after trial only one, Michael Barrett, was found guilty, and was sentenced to death. Barrett was the last person to be publically hung outside Newgate Prison.

The scene in Corporation Row after the explosion. A temporary wall has been erected to plug the gap caused by the explosion, and the walls of the opposite houses are being held up with timber supports.

Sans Walk

On a quiet autumn day in 2020 it is hard to imagine the explosion and devastation in Corporation Row.

As well as the Hugh Myddleton School built on the site of the prison, there is another closed school near by. Parts of the wall surrounding the playground and one of the entrances for infants can be seen in front of the recent building that now occupies part of the playground space.

Sans Walk

This is Bowling Green Lane School, built in 1874:

Sans Walk

Another London Board School, part of the site was originally a parish cemetery, along with housing and a tavern.

When the Hugh Myddleton School opened, Bowling Green Lane School became the junior school for the Hugh Myddleton.

Sans Walk

Having built and run many schools in the later part of the 19th century, the London School Board would become part of the London County Council when the authority took over responsibilities for education across London.

A rather nice London County Council coat of arms can still be seen on the side of the school facing the street.

Sans Walk

Bowling Green Lane school closed in 1970, but continued to provide additional space for Islington Green Secondary School until 1982 when it was converted into a range of business spaces, and today, a sign adjacent to the Girls and Infants entrance confirms that Zaha Hadid Architects now occupy the old school.

Sans Walk

The name of the school is after Bowling Green Lane, the street that runs in front of the school. This is both an old street and name and is named after the Bowling Greens that once occupied the land to the north of the street as shown in this extract from Ogilby and Morgan’s map of London published in 1677:

Sans Walk

For many years, Bowling Green Lane and Corporation Row were the northern edge of this part of London, with open space on the northern side of the streets.

The following map extract is from a map produced in 1755 for Stowe’s survey of London. The orientation is rather strange as north is to the left, east is at the top of the map.

Sans Walk

The built areas of Clerkenwell are to the right (south) and open space to the left (north) until we come to the New River Head.

Hugh Myddleton was the driving force behind the construction of the New River and round pond at New River Head, and the large new London School Board school was named after him.

Sadler’s Wells were just north of New River Head and the open space between Sadler’s Wells and Clerkenwell was often a dangerous place for those returning in the dark from entertainments – see my post on Sadler’s Wells.

I now reached Sans Walk, the street that was apparently the centre for the three photos.

Sans Walk appears to have been in existence at the time of the Middlesex House of Detention, but seems to have gone by the name of Short’s Buildings – the name of a terrace of buildings on the southern edge of the street.

The name Sans Walk seems to have come into use by 1893 and the name comes from Edward Sans, the oldest member of the parish vestry at the time.

In the western side of Sans Walk, there are new buildings on the southern edge and the old Hugh Myddleton School on the northern edge of the street:

Sans Walk

Ornate, carved name of the school, high up on the wall to the left of the building.

Sans Walk

The initials of the London School Board are also prominently displayed on the right of the school building:

Sans Walk

The eastern stretch of Sans Walk – I could not match any of the buildings in the street with those shown in my father’s photos.

Sans Walk

On the side wall of the house at the eastern end of Sans Walk is this plaque making clear that the entire wall is the property of the County of Middlesex. No idea if that applies to the rest of the house behind the wall, or just the wall.

Sans Walk

Looking down Sans Walk from the east.

Sans Walk

The building on the left does look like a restored version of one of the terrace of houses in the first photo, however the location is completely wrong. the house above is only a single house on the end of a very different terrace, and there is a road passing immediately in front of the house, with Sans Walk on the right.

At the end of Sans Walk is Woodbridge Street. I could not find any houses that matched the photos.

Sans Walk

Running along the opposite side of the houses to Woodbridge Street is Sekforde Street, lined with early terrace houses, but again nothing that matched my father’s photos.

Sans Walk

Half way along the street is an interesting building. painted white, that stands out from the terrace of houses on either side.

This is the former head office of the Finsbury Bank for Savings.

Sans Walk

The Finsbury Bank for Savings opened in August 1816 at St. John’s Square, Clerkenwell Green. Formed to provide a service for small traders, labourers etc.

The bank moved premises to the building in Sekforde Street shown in the photo above in April 1841 after being built for the bank during the previous year.

Although the bank was intended for customers with limited savings, it was used by many more affluent customers, including the author Charles Dickens.

The Finsbury Bank for Savings went through a series of mergers, eventually becoming part of TSB, which in turn was taken over by Lloyds Bank.

I failed in the aim of the walk, to find the locations of my father’s photos around Sans Walk, although one of the aims of searching for these locations is to explore the surrounding area, and there was plenty to be found around Sans Walk.

The schools and warehouses of the London School Board, a 19th century bomb planted by the Fenians, the northward limit of Clerkenwell in the 18th century and streets that record lost bowling greens and one of London’s early saving banks – all within a short walk.

London is always best explored on foot and almost every street tells a story.

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George Inn, Borough High Street, Southwark

The George Inn, along Borough High Street, Southwark is the only remaining galleried coaching inn in London of the many that once serviced the numerous coaches that connected the city with the rest of the country.

The George remains thanks to the London and North Eastern Railway. Although they did demolish large parts of the original buildings leaving only one side of the complex, they sold to the National Trust in 1937, who continue to own the property with it currently being leased to the pub chain and brewer, Greene King.

Back in 1977, I took the following photograph of the George with the main building and galleried upper floors.

George Inn

There was something being filmed at the time of my visit, as the lights facing into the building demonstrate – cannot remember what it was – a late 1970s period drama.

On a rather overcast September day, I went back to Borough High Street to photograph the George Inn.

George Inn

The George still has the narrow entrance from Borough High Street. These are days of COVID precautions and the sign indicated a separate side for entrance and exit.

George Inn

I did not want to challenge the restrictions in place, so did not walk into the yard just to take photos. I was short of time, having to be in Clerkenwell that afternoon so could not stop for a drink. The George is on the list for a return visit, and some better photos.

George Inn

The George looks much the same as in my 1977 photo, however the building at the end of the yard in 1977 has been demolished and replaced.

The George is a very old Inn, dating back to at least the 16th century. It was mentioned by Stowe in 1598 as one of the “fair inns” of London.

It was originally called the St. George, but because of changes in sentiment towards religious iconography, Popery and saints, the inn became the George in the mid 16th century.

In 1622 the inn is described as being built of “brick and timber”. In 1670 a Mark and Mary Wayland were running the George for an annual rent of £150. That year the pub was damaged by fire. Wayland rebuilt and had his rent reduced to £80 and a sugar loaf.

A much larger fire in 1676 that burnt through much of the surrounding area, totally destroyed the George, but again it was rebuilt by the tenant who had the rent further reduced to £50 and a sugar loaf, along with an extension of the lease.

In 1825, the George is recorded as being “a good commercial inn in the Boro High Street; well known, whence several coaches and many wagons depart laden with the merchandise of the metropolis, in return for which they bring back from various parts of Kent, that staple article of the country, the hop, to which we are indebted for the good quality of the London porter”.

In 1855, a description of the stables area of the inn included “a round room for the ostlers in the days of pack-horses, and a stable below ground with steps leading down to it”.

For many years, the George was owned by the trustees of Guy’s Hospital, which was on the eastern boundary of the original George Inn – the building we see today is a small part of the original inn and the associated buildings to support the coaching business.

In 1874, St Guy’s Hospital sold the George Inn to the Great Northern Railway. The coming of the railways had seen a rapid decline in travel by horse and coach, so the sale of the inn to the GNR, who used the site as a receiving station for goods to be transported on their rail network, was in many ways a logical continuation of the main transport function of the inn.

The following photo shows the courtyard of the George, looking towards Borough High Street, with a sign above the entrance to the offices of the Great Northern Railway:

George Inn

The location of the George Inn was key to the success of the inn as a coaching inn, as one of many inns located in courtyards along the main road that led south from London Bridge.

The following map extract is from a map of the Parish of St. Saviours Southwark by Richard Blome (late 17th century but published by John Stow in 1720).

It shows the road leading from London Bridge at the top of the map, down to the Marshalsea Prison at the bottom of the map. This road had long been the only southern route out of the City of London.

George Inn

To the right of the road are numerous alleys and courts. Many of these were inns such as the Spur Inn, Queen’s Head Inn, Talbot Inn, White Heart Inn, King’s Head Inn, Black Swan Inn, Ship Inn and Bores Head Inn. Southwark really did have a lot of Inns.

At number 35, with the red circle is the George Inn. The narrow access from the street leads on to a large courtyard.

There were a number of reasons for the high number of inns. The road was originally the only road from the City of London to the southern counties of England. The area was outside the control of the City of London, there was more land available and rents were cheaper than on the other side of London Bridge.

Catching a coach from one of the Inns in Southwark was almost the equivalent of walking across London Bridge today and catching a train at London Bridge Station.

Coaches from the Southwark Inns served numerous destinations in the counties of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire and in 1809, W.S. Scholefield who was running the George at the time, published a list of the destinations from the inn, and their frequency:

George Inn

The table demonstrates just how busy the George Inn must have been. Numerous destinations, with some having four coaches a day. Horses being stabled at the George, passengers staying in the rooms of the George before an onward journey, luggage and other goods for onward transport across London.

The table includes coaches, which were mainly for passenger transport, and also wagons, which were used for the transport of goods, so the George was also the hub for a transport network for products, raw materials and personal / household goods that needed to be sent to destinations from Kent to Hampshire, and returning goods for sale in the City.

I plotted the coach network onto a map to give a graphical view of the geographic spread and number of destinations (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

George Inn

The majority of destinations are in the county of Kent, with some in Sussex. There is a  significant gap between the main Kent services and the five destinations to the west of the map, with no services to towns such as Edenbridge, East Grinstead, Uckfield and Lewes.

It may have been that there was no market for these destinations, or that they were served by coaches from other Southwark based coaching inns. I did consider trying to put together a map showing the destinations from the different inns, where these are known, colour coding based on the Southwark inn. An 18th century / early 19th century equivalent of a 21st century rail network map, but as usual have the idea but not the time.

What the list of destinations does not show is whether each was a single route with multiple stops, or whether these were individual destinations, or a mix of both. Or, whether some of these destinations were reached through a change in coach.

There is a brilliant book called “Paterson’s Roads – An Entirely Original and Accurate Description of all the Direct and Principal Cross Roads in England and Wales”.

I have the 1826 edition, and the book is basically an early 19th century SatNav, It provides detailed routes to get from Town A to Town B, listing all the intermediate towns, turnpikes, and where other destinations could be reached through turning off from the main route. The routes are annotated with descriptions of the towns and villages along the route, milestones, turnpikes and important buildings.

One of the routes is from London (the Surrey side of London Bridge) to Dover. An important destination, as from Dover boats provided the shortest crossing of the channel over to continental Europe. As Dover is one of the destinations from the George, I plotted the route from 1826 as the red line on the following map:

George Inn

The route is the most direct route, but with a short diversion for a stop at Gravesend – a long route in a horse drawn coach on 18th / early 19th century roads.

Paterson’s Roads describes Gravesend as “the first port in the Thames, and by a grant of Richard II, enjoys the privilege of conveying passengers to and from London; the vessels depart from Billingsgate every day at high water, on the ringing of a bell, and from Gravesend every flood tide. All outward bound vessels are obliged to bring-to here, till they have been examined by the proper officers, and receive their clearances; here also all foreigners are detained on arriving from abroad; till they have obtained permission from the Secretary of State’s office to proceed, and all foreigners departing must receive their clearance  from the Aliens office here”.

Paterson’s Roads also provides points where there is a route to a secondary destination, shown as the blue lines on the map. So a stop at Chatham provides a route south to Maidstone, a stop at Faversham provides a route to Ashford, and a stop at Canterbury provides a route north to Whitstable.

The infrastructure needed to support the number of coaches and wagons departing from and arriving at the George Inn was significant and originally the Inn was much larger than we see today.

The coming of the railways destroyed the coach and wagon business and Inns such as the George lost much of their business over a relatively short period of time.

Buildings and land that were originally part of the George were sold, and part was demolished or converted by the Great Northern Railway to be used as storage space.

The Great Northern Railway became the London and North Eastern Railway, and in 1937, the LNER sold the George to the National Trust, who still own the building. As part of the sale, the LNER produced a plan created in 1847 when the previous owner, Guy’s Hospital, had sold to the Great Northern Railway.

This plan provides a detailed view of the original scale of the George, not just the yard in front of the current pub, but extending much further back towards Guy’s Hospital, where there were a large number of stables for the horses that once pulled the coaches and wagons across the counties south of London:

George Inn

The following photo, dated to the 1880s shows the yard outside the current pub. The archway at the end of the yard is that shown in the plan above which leads into the stable yard and extensive stabling.

George Inn

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_02_0970_X72_310

Newspaper records mainly reference the George Inn for coaching services rather than the alcoholic problems that a 18th / 19th century inn would often have, for example, even in 1812 it was not a good idea to fraudulently claim expenses:

“28th October 1812 – MIDDLESEX SESSIONS. Thomas Pearson, lately employed as office keeper in the office of his Majesty’s Quarter-Master-General, stood indicted for fraudulently altering, in a bill from the coach-office of the George Inn, Southwark, the sum of 3s 1d to 13s 1d for the carriage and porterage of a parcel from Hythe; and thereby defrauding his Majesty”.

There were adverts of coach services from the George, and the mention of reduced fares probably indicates the competitive nature of coach services. From the Maidstone Advertiser on the 20th September 1842:

Reduced Fares. Direct to London in three and a half hours by the favorite 4-horse coach, from the Swan Inn, Maidstone, every afternoon at 4 o’clock. Returning from the Ship, Charing Cross, Belle Sauvage, Ludgate Hill; Bull and Mouth, St Martin’s Le Grand; Blossoms Inn, Lawrence-lane; every morning at nine o’clock; and the George Inn, Borough, at half past nine, Fares 10 Shillings Inside. 6 Shillings Outside”.

On the same page as the above advert, is another that tells of the coming demise of the horse drawn coach services, and is probably why the above advert was advertising reduced fares:

“South-Eastern Railway Booking Office. Swan-Inn, High-street, Maidstone.

To and from London in three and a quarter hours!

Superior appointed coaches start punctually at the stated times from the above office to the station Paddock Wood, passing through Testom, Wateringbury and Peckham. Fares 2 Shillings Inside, 1 Shilling Outside”.

The above advert is interesting as it shows the hybrid nature of early train services and how the railway companies used the coach services they wanted to replace as feeder services to their stations.

The South Eastern Railway had reached Paddock Wood in Kent in May 1842, but would not reach Maidstone until 1874, so the South Eastern Railway ran coach services to take customers from nearby towns such as Maidstone to the nearest station.  A clever idea as it not only grew traffic on the new rail network, but also encouraged those who had to use a feeder service to support the extension of the rail network to their own town.

The railways would quickly kill off the horse and coach services, and with them the need for coaching inns, and in the latter half of the 19th century London lost nearly all the coaching inns, with the exception of the George Inn. Even the nearby Tabard Inn, which seems to have been older than the George was demolished in 1873.

By 1899, the importance of the George was being recognised. From the 4th September 1899:

“I am glad to observe that London is not to be deprived of the old George Inn at Southwark – the last of the picturesque galleried hostelries of London. It was reported in one quarter that this ancient inn was to come down; in another, that it was to be turned into a common-place gin palace. 

It was frequently visited by the sixth Lord Digby, a benevolent member of the Peerage, who midway in the eighteenth century, used to disguise himself in a shabby old blue dress and visit the old Marshalsea prison, and free a number of prisoners by paying their debts in full. He did this twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, and then took them to the George, celebrating the occasion by entertaining the liberated prisoners to a repast”.

An earlier story about Lord Digby tells of thirty people he had released from the Marshalsea prison, sitting at dinner at the George Inn.

Late 19th century view of the George:

George Inn

The George Inn is one of the many London locations that claim an association with the author Charles Dickens, although with the George it is almost certainly true that he did visit the inn and it does get a brief mention in Little Dorrit.

There are many original features inside the pub, dating back to the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries, and there is possible reuse of medieval beams and stone.

The George Inn is still owned by the National Trust, is Grade I listed and the inn is currently run by Greene King.

The George was a key location for transport to Kent, and there are plenty of other reminders in this area of Southwark of how Kent produce was taken to, traded and sold in Borough.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Borough Market and the Hop Exchange, and a short distance in Borough High Street from the George is this facade:

George Inn

WH and H Le May were William Henry and his brother Herbert. Born in Gun Lane, Limehouse, they went on to establish a very successful hop trading business based on Borough High Street.

Their trade extended to all the hop growing areas of the country, not just Kent, but counties such as Herefordshire where newspapers had adverts for the business encouraging growers to consign their hops to WH and H Le May, to be “sold in London, the best market for hops”.

Advertising included pricing updates and in 1911 they reported that “the demand for all types of hops continues, and prices have again advanced on all the hop markets of the world”.

George Inn

The business may be long gone, but the ornate facade provides a reminder of this area of Southwark’s connection with the trade of agricultural produce from Kent, southern England and further afield.

One of the books I have used to research this post is “The Old Inns of Southwark and their Associations”, by William Rendle and Philip Norman. The book was published in 1888.

Old books help as they provide information closer to the time they are recording. Some care must be taken to double check, but they are a good source of information.

These books also have their own history as they pass from owner to owner over the years, accumulating a memory of their time with some of the owners of the book.

In the Old Inns of Southwark, on the rear of the title page, I found the following photo glued onto the page.

George Inn

I have no idea who A.H, Lucas was, perhaps the owner of the book in December 1959 when the photo was taken.

I was considering adding my 1977 photo, but I did not own the book at the time, so when it is possible to get back to the George, I will take another photo and add to the book.

Another book which takes this to a more extreme level, with additions that tell of the coaching history of Chatham is “The Medway River and Valley” by William Coles Finch, an author and resident engineer of the Chatham and District Water Company. The book was published in 1929 and is a fascinating history of the River Medway, and the towns along the Medway.

The book was purchased when published by a Mr A.C. Holliday, a local teacher.

In 1934 A.C. Holliday had written to William Coles Finch, apparently praising his books as Coles Finch replied, and A.C. Holliday glued the reply into the book:

George Inn

A.C. Holliday also glued into the book, on every empty page at the start and end of the book, newspaper cuttings on the history of Chatham.

This cutting tells of the first train to arrive in Chatham, and also recalls the state of the roads which the old horse drawn coaches would have used to reach Chatham from London from inns such as the George Inn, with dust in dry weather and mud in winter:

George Inn

The article includes mention of the Vans that once ran to London, loaded with goods. The sense of London as being a distant place of mystery and adventure, and of the problems that a traveler would encounter with thieves on Shooters Hill:

George Inn

William Coles Finch died in 1945, and an obituary is glued in the book:

George Inn

William Coles Finch wife, Emily wrote to A.C. Holliday regarding the article, and the letter is also glued into the book:

George Inn

There is no free space in the book to add any further contributions, however I printed one of my photos of the London Stone at Yantlet Creek to use as a book mark, and have this in the book as my addition to its history.

I have always used the latest London Underground folded maps, exhibition or concert tickets, or photos as bookmarks and leave these in the book when finished – my contribution to their history.

The George is now much smaller than the original establishment, when horses needed to be stabled and coaches and wagons set out for the southern counties, but it still shows what an inn would have looked like when horse drawn vehicles were the main mode of transport.

As the George Inn is owned by the National Trust (a brilliant decision by the LNER), the long term future looks assured, and it is the perfect place to stop for a drink and consider the many thousands of travelers who must have departed or arrived here, each on their own special journey through, what was described in Coles Finch’s book as “London, being a distant place of mystery and adventure”.

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Seven Dials and Monmouth Street

The following photo shows a brick terrace house, advertising a saddler and harness maker, but in a rather poor condition. We are in Monmouth Street in Seven Dials and the photo was taken by my father in 1984.

Seven Dials

Thirty six years later and the building is in a far better condition, with the advertising signage restored.

Seven Dials

I was going to try and be clever and title the post “Seven things about Seven Dials”, but as I dug into the history of the area there are far more than just seven things of interest.

The sign is advertising the business of B. Flegg, a Saddler and Harness Maker, established in 1847.

B. Flegg was a William Flegg and the building in Monmouth Street was not his only premises. I suspect this may have been his central London sales room, where he would sell everything needed for the thousands of horses that kept London moving in the 19th century.

William Flegg’s main location seems to have been on the Old Kent Road in south London where he occupied numbers 585, 586 and 592. Adverts in the South London Chronicle stated that he had “Stable utensils of every description. Whips and all kinds of horse clothing always on hand. A waggonette to let, to hold four or six persons”.

It could be that saddler and harness maker was a family trade and that the family were from south London. As well as William Flegg there was an H. Flegg, also a saddler and harness maker, who had premises at 7 Deptford Bridge, but had to move to 2 Church Street, Deptford in 1880 due to rebuilding of the bridge over the Deptford Creek.

Flegg is not that common a name so I suspect that H. and William Flegg were related.

The final references to the name Flegg as a saddler are in 1905, when a George Flegg, aged 40 and a saddler of 654 Woolwich Road, Charlton was found drunk in Woolwich Road and fined two shilling and six pence, or three days if he did not pay the fine.

Monmouth Street is the street leading off to the south from the central Seven Dials junction, just to the east of Charing Cross Road and south of Shaftesbury Avenue. The seven streets radiating out from the central junction form a distinctive pattern on the map (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

Seven Dials

The layout of the streets around Seven Dials has not changed for a very long time. The 1895 Ordnance Survey map shows the same distinctive layout (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’):

Seven Dials

Going back to a 1755 map of the Parish of St Giles’s in the Fields, and the same distinctive layout is in the lower left corner:

Seven Dials

Detail of Seven Dials from the above map:

Seven Dials

Comparison of the maps tells us a number of things about Seven Dials. Firstly the streets radiating out from the central junction have changed names over the years:

Seven Dials

In 1755 the street name stayed the same as the street crossed the central junction, however by 1895 the names had been changed slightly to give each branch a distinctive name, so St. Andrew’s Street became Little and Great St. Andrew Street.

By 2020, the 1755 approach of extending the same street name across the junction had been put back in place, and a new set of names given.

When William Flegg was in Monmouth Street, he would have known the street as Little St. Andrew Street.

The maps also tell us something about the pillar in the centre of the junction. The 1755 map shows the pillar, however by 1895 the pillar had gone, and there was a Urinal in the junction. By 2020 the pillar was back in place.

I will come on to this later, however for now, lets take a walk along the southern section of Monmouth Street.

The terrace of houses with William Flegg’s premises in the centre:

Seven Dials

Looking up Monmouth Street from the southern end of the street:

Seven Dials

Buildings along the western side of Monmouth Street:

Seven Dials

The rather magnificent Two Brewers pub, Monmouth Street:

Seven Dials

The streets around Seven Dials are now full of clothing and jewelry shops, restaurants and cafes. Mainly small, one off shops rather than the large chain shops that can be found across much of London.

We can also walk through the street in 1895 and look at the businesses that occupied the houses by using the 1895 Post Office Directory.

Seven Dials

We can see William Flegg occupying numbers 16, 17 and 18, so not just the single house with the sign on the wall. The numbers are different to today’s numbering as this was when this branch of Monmouth Street was Little St. Andrew Street.

The directory has a few abbreviations of which I have not yet found the meaning such as the “size ma” for George Oliver at number 11 and “rms” for John Thomas Blake at number 20.

This was a street of small manufacturers and traders, trading in everything from bread and meat to birds and fishing rods.

At the top of the southern branch of Monmouth Street is the Seven Dials junction, where the seven streets come together:

Seven Dials

The streets running around the central Seven Dials junction were built during the later part of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Thomas Neale obtained the lease for the land in 1693. Prior to this, the area was already built-up, but with Cock and Pye Fields occupying the space where part of Earlham and Monmouth Streets now run.

In the following extract from William Morgan’s 1682 map of the city of London, I have marked the location of the central Seven Dials junction with a red circle.

Seven Dials

There is only a single street that remains to this day. White Lion Street can be seen running through the red circle. This would stay White Lion Street when the central junction and seven streets where completed. Today White Lion Street is Mercer Street.

Note also that the street that would become Shaftesbury Avenue was Monmoth Street in 1682.

The central feature of the junction of the seven streets in Thomas Neale ‘s plans was a pillar.

The British Museum has a copy of the original drawing of the pillar designed by Edward Pierce (©Trustees of the British Museum):

Seven Dials

The text at the bottom of the drawing states “A Stone Pillar with Sun Dyals to which are directed 7 streets in St Giles’s Parish commonly called the Seven Dyals, formerly a Laystall”.

The word Laystall can refer to a place where rubbish or dung is deposited. It can also refer to a place where cattle are kept. This might be related to the location of the sun dial being at the entrance to Cock and Pye Fields in the 1682 Morgan map.

The 1895 Ordnanace Survey map shows the central junction without the pillar. It had been removed over 100 years earlier as it had become the focal point for so called undesirables and in 1773 the Paving Commissioners ordered the removal to prevent this nuisance.

The pillar eventually turned up in Weybridge, where the pillar, without sun dials, can be seen today at the junction of Monument Hill and Monument Green.

By the 1980s, the majority of Seven Dials was derelict, and there were plans for the demolition of the majority of buildings in the area. Restoration plans were proposed by the Seven Dials Monument Charity and fortunately this approach was supported, otherwise we would see a very different Seven Dials today.

There were efforts to bring the original pillar back from Weybridge, however the local council refused.

Architect A.D.Mason designed a new pillar based on the original design by Edward Pierce, which included making measurements of the original pillar in Weybridge. The new pillar and sun dials were unveiled on the 29th of June, 1989.

The new pillar would become the focal point for the restoration work of the streets surrounding the pillar, and the work has been a considerable success with the area packed with people in more normal times.

Looking down the southern branch of Monmouth Street from the central junction:

Seven Dials

The Crown pub facing the central junction, between the northern branch of Monmouth Street and Short’s Gardens.

Seven Dials

A plaque on the pub shows how the solar time shown by the pillar can be converted to Greenwich Mean Time:

Seven Dials

The new central pillar:

Seven Dials

The Cambridge Theatre (opened on the 4th September 1930), between Earlham and Mercer Streets:

Seven Dials

The Crown pub, then Short’s Gardens, then Earlham Street:

Seven Dials

During the first decades of the 1700s, the new area of Seven Dials quickly become a reference point for news reports and a sample of reports between the years 1723 and 1749 tells us much about life in these brand new streets:

21st March 1723: There is just finished by Mr John Noble, living near Seven Dials, an Organ, which by using bellows only, without the help of an Organist, sounds several Tunes to Perfection.

6th February 1725: One Murphy, a Centinel in the 2nd Regiment of Guards, was on Saturday last seized near the Seven Dials, on Suspicion of being concerned in the robbing of the Chester Mail. One of the Chester Bags (out of which letters were stolen) having been found near a hedge, was brought to the General Post-Office yesterday morning.

1st November 1729: Late last night one Welch, who buys and sells old Cloths, was set upon by two Street-Robbers at the Corner of St Andrew’s-Street, near the Seven Dials, who took from him in Cloths and Money to the value of seven pounds and upwards.

There was a pillory at the Seven Dials in the early decades of the 18th century, and the risks of being sentenced to the Pillory can be seen from the following newspaper report:

22nd June 1732: Last night, the Coroner’s Inquest upon the body of John Waller, who stood in the Pillory at the Seven Dials in the Parish of St. Giles’s in the Fields last Tuesday, and brought in the Verdict wilful murder with unlawful weapons.

Later in 1732, the person who had killed John Waller was included in a list of those sentenced to death, but the report does not provide any background as to why he was murdered:

14th September 1732: Richard Griffith, for being concerned in the Death of Waller who was killed in the Pillory at Seven Dials.

24th November 1733: Last Saturday Mr Rambert, a Coal Merchant in Tower Street, near the Seven Dials, received an Incendiary Letter threatening to set his House on Fire, and kill him, if he did not leave twelve Guinieas in a certain place mentioned in the letter, which was written in French. That night Mr Rambert left twelve Half-pence in the Place, and at about One in the morning, some Neighbours who watched to see the consequence, observed four fellows pass by, when one of them took up the half pence and walked off with the imaginary prize. We hear nothing however of their being pursued.

Strangely, 16 years later, there is a report of someone being arrested for writing incendiary letters:

24th November 1749: On Saturday night, one Franks, a shoemaker, was taken at a house near Seven Dials, on the Oaths of his Accomplices, for writing Incendiary Letters to several persons, in order to extort Money thereby.

People living in the streets leading off from the Seven Dials pillar could be very wealthy:

15th October 1741: On Saturday last died at his House in Earl-street, near the Seven Dials, Mr. Philips, a Distiller, said to have died worth 30,000 pounds, and on Thursday Morning his Corpse was carried out of Town, in order to be interred near his deceased relations, about three miles from Nottingham.

29th November 1744: The same day, Hannah Moses, otherwise Samuel, the Widow of one of the three Jews who were hanged about three sessions ago, was committed by the same Gentleman to New-prison, and her accomplice, Benjamin David Woolf, to Newgate, for stealing out of the shop of Mr John Barber, a Silversmith, at the Seven Dials, an Ingot of Silver.

19th May 1749: A few days since a Sailor went into a Chandler’s Shop in Earl-street, near the Seven Dials, to ask for a Lodging; but the man telling him there was none to let, he asked for a Halfpenny-worth of Tobacco, which as the Shop-keeper was serving, he drew his Hanger, cut him down behind the Counter, and made off; and yesterday the unfortunate man died of the wounds he received.

25th August 1749: Two Sawyers belonging to Mr Neale’s Yard in King’s-Street, Seven Dials, quarreled and fought, and one of them, by a fall, fractured his skull and died immediately, and the other being carried before a Magistrate, was by him committed o New-prison, Clerkenwell.

By the late 19th century, many of the streets around Seven Dials were crowded, with many poor occupants. Gustave Dore drew the entrance to Monmouth Street from Seven Dials. People crowd the street, shops and basements with shoes for sale line the side of the street and children play in street, blocking the path of a carriage (©Trustees of the British Museum).

Seven Dials

George Cruikshank had earlier produced a drawing around 1836 as an illustration to Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz. The drawing shows two women being urged to fight in front of a gin palace in Seven Dials (©Trustees of the British Museum):

Seven Dials

Despite the impression created by Gustave Dore, Charles Booth’s poverty map of London, between 1898 and 1899 shows most of the streets around Seven Dials as “Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings”, although the dark blue along Queen Street is classed as “Very poor, casual. Chronic want”.

Seven Dials

The following photo from the 1897 publication “The Queen’s London” shows a street leading up to the Seven Dials junction. The photo gives a different impression of the area to that of Gustave Dore’s drawing.

Seven Dials

By the 1970s, the area was very much in decline. The streets were all open to traffic, there was no central pillar and cars would pass across the central junction between streets. Some of the space in the streets was used for purposes that seem very strange when looking at the area today.

In 1974, a Texaco petrol station occupied the space between Earlham and Monmouth Streets. This is the space to the right of my earlier photo looking down the southern branch of Monmouth Street from the central junction,

Seven Dials

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_01_152_74_21025

There is much to discover in the streets that lead off from the central junction of Seven Dials. I have only covered the southern branch of Monmouth Street and a general history of area. It would take a very much longer post to cover the whole area.

There are a couple of houses in the southern section of Mercer Street that I want to show. They are a pair of late 17th century terrace houses that date from the original construction of Seven Dials. This is number 27 Mercer Street:

Seven Dials

And number 25. Both are Grade II listed.

Seven Dials

The view looking up Mercer Street towards the pillar from the junction with Shelton Street:

Seven Dials

During the summer and autumn period, many of the streets have been closed, providing more space for pedestrians and the cafes in the area.

Seven Dials is usually very busy. Tourists, visitors to London, those visiting the theatres and restaurants of the West End add to those who live and work in the area.

in the run-up to Christmas, the streets around Seven Dials are crowded, and a couple of years ago I photographed a Saturday evening around Seven Dials. Here are three examples.

Looking up Monmouth Street towards the central junction:

Seven Dials

Around the central pillar:

Seven Dials

Crowds and the Cambridge Theatre:

Seven Dials

Many of the buildings of Seven Dials have been redeveloped, and the original pillar is now to be found in Weybridge, but the general layout is still the same, and some of the original buildings survive.

I suspect that Thomas Neale would be rather pleased that his Seven Dials development is still here 300 years later.

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