Tag Archives: London

Books we love

This week, Andrea from our Charing Cross branch is reviewing Walking Dicken’s London  by Lee Jackson.  Over to Andrea.

This book takes you on a journey of eight walks through Dickens’ London. The guide not only directs you to famous locations that Dickens would have known, such as the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral but, for me, the enjoyment would be that it takes you into back alleys and lonely courtyards that are definitely off the beaten track and that you probably wouldn’t know existed. Each chapter has many interesting photos, drawings and maps that should help you on your way. The author says each walk should take about one to two hours.  I have downloaded it to my iPhone, which should make it more accessible and easier to read when walking than if I were carrying the book around.

This book can be downloaded  here on cloudLibrary.  You can log in using a computer or download the app.  You just need your library membership number to log in.  Not a member?  Don’t worry, click here to join our library service.

The Silvertown Explosion

London's disasters, by John WithingtonWe live in a time of international terrorism. London is seen as a prime target and is on high alert for such an attack. There have been attacks and bombings in London before of course, especially during the IRA ‘Troubles’.

But it was one hundred years ago on Friday 19 January 1917 when occurred London’s largest ever loss of life through explosion. However, this was not due to enemy action, even though it took place during a World War – it was home grown and totally avoidable.

One of the main industries in Silvertown at the time was the Brunner Mond chemical factory, which produced soda crystals and caustic soda. However the caustic soda plant had been closed down in 1912 and was standing idle. In 1915, this was “practically requisitioned” by the Government agency, the Explosives Supply Department who wanted to use it to purify the explosive trinitrotoluene (TNT) for use in ammunition. This was despite the fact that the plant was located in a heavily populated area, which also had other volatile chemical and refining industries, a point stressed by the Brunner Mond directors who were opposed to the plans. The government thought that the production of TNT was safe as long as the purification process (to be undertaken here) was kept separate from the manufacture of raw TNT. Consequently the processes did not have to comply with the regulations of the 1875 Explosives Act.

Production started in September 1915 on a 24-hour basis, employing three shifts. The protracted battles of trench warfare were consuming vast quantities of ammunition (and lives), while making little tactical advance.

Silvertown Explosion Memorial, near Pontoon Dock station.

The memorial to the Silvertown explosion. This is located below the Docklands Light Railway near Pontoon Dock station.

On the night of 19 January 1917, the inevitable happened and there was an explosion at 6.52 pm. It is believed that this was caused by a fire in the melt pot room. The reason for the fire breaking out was not established, as the witnesses who raised the alarm were killed in the explosion. It should not have been unexpected though. Only in the previous month, the plant had been visited by a government inspector, whose report stated that

“It is perfectly clear that the management at Silvertown did not pay sufficient attention to the explosion risk attached to the handling of TNT.”

In particular he reported that there were no precautions in place against friction sparks. The explosion was so severe that it destroyed the factory, other local factories, the local fire station (which was opposite the factory and had only opened in 1914) and damaged thousands of homes. The explosion could be heard 100 miles away. Sixty-nine people were killed in the explosion with four more subsequently dying from their injuries. Another ninety-eight people were seriously injured and more than nine hundred suffered minor injuries.

Plaque, Postman's Park, City of London

A plaque in Postman’s Park in the City of London commemorates a policeman who was on duty outside the factory when the fire broke out. He stayed at his post to warn people of the dangers of explosion, but later lost his life in hospital from the injuries he received.

The loss of life in the Silvertown disaster would be treated as a major scandal today, but unfortunately then it was just another statistic among the countless lives lost already in the Great War and those still to die before peace came in 1918. With no radio, television, internet or social media in those days, it was far easier for the government to conceal bad news. There was postal and press censorship, designed to prevent contact with the enemy and to ensure that the conflict was presented to the public in a pro-Allied light.

This censorship is illustrated by using the usual research routes. To see how news was reported at the time of an event, one can search newspaper archives such as the Times Digital Archive (log in with your library card number). However, searching for Silvertown explosion or Silvertown disaster brings no results.  Neither does a similar search in The Illustrated London News. Even searching Gale News Vault for Silvertown 1917 only brings up an article in The Times from 1925, appealing for funds to rebuild St. Barnabas Church which had been destroyed in the explosion.

Searching the Times Digital Archive by date, on 20 February there is only a brief one line report that

“there had been an explosion in a munitions factory near London, and that considerable loss of life and damage to property were feared.”

A fuller report is given on Monday 22 February (on page 9) but again it refers to ‘The explosion near London’ and does not state the actual location or name of the factory concerned. There are no illustrations. It is interesting to note though, that while there is some ‘positive spin’ in the reporting the paper does make some critical comments about the slack enforcement of safety regulations by the authorities.

The dearth of contemporary reports, while interesting from an historical point of view, means that we have to look elsewhere for more information. One book that contains quite a bit about the explosion is London’s Disasters: from Boudicca to the banking crisis, by John Withington (pictured above), available from your library.

[Malcolm]

Interesting times (2)

December 2016 version of Sgt Pepper cover, by Chris Barker There’s an ancient Chinese curse or proverb: “May you live in interesting times…”

Well, there isn’t actually (it dates all the way back to the politician Austen Chamberlain in 1936) but I think we can all agree that 2016 has been… interesting!
Most of us would probably wish that 2017 is a little less so.

While Westminster Libraries can’t promise world peace or political stability, we can promise you some interesting anniversaries and the resources for interested people to carry out further research.

January

The year kicks off in January with the 75th anniversary of Desert Island Discs, which was first broadcast on 29 January 1942. It continues to this day with guests (rather tweely known as ‘castaways’) being asked to discuss the eight pieces of music they would take to a desert island. Later on, guests were allowed to choose a book and a luxury too. The first castaway was the ‘comedian, lightning club manipulator, violinist and comedy trick cyclist’, Vic Oliver. Oliver was not only a major star on the radio but also the son-in-law of Winston Churchill (something Churchill wasn’t too thrilled about, though Oliver never traded on the relationship). Though this episode doesn’t survive in the BBC archives, many hundreds of others do and  are available to listen online or download as podcasts. The earliest surviving episode has the actress Margaret Lockwood as a guest and other castaways include seven prime ministers, dozens of Oscar winners, a bunch of Olympic medallists, a few Royals and several criminals.

February

19 February brings the 300th anniversary of the birth of the actor, playwright and theatre manager David Garrick. Though he was a native of Lichfield (and former pupil of another Lichfield resident-turned-London-devotee, Samuel Johnson) by the age of 23, Garrick was acclaimed as the greatest actor on the English stage. He was a noted playwright but most famous for his Shakespearean roles – though he was not averse to ‘improving’ on the text – his adaptations included a Hamlet without the funeral of Ophelia and the need for the gravediggers, a ‘King Lear’ without the Fool and a Cordelia who lives on, an interpolated dying speech for Macbeth and a scene between the two lovers in the tomb before they die in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Be honest – who wouldn’t want to see those? He ran the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for nearly 30 years and he is now commemorated by a theatre and a pub (with Charing Cross Library neatly sandwiched in between).

March

1717 wasn’t just a significant year in the history of ‘legitimate’ theatre. 2 March that year saw the first performance (at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane)  of The Loves of Mars and Venus by John Weaver, generally regarded as the  first ballet performed in Britain. While there had been English masques and French ballets before this, Weaver was the first person to tell a story through the medium of dance without the need for songs or dialogue. Weaver was the son of the dancing master at Shrewsbury School (public school curricula must have been rather different in the 1600s).

Mrs Hester BoothIn 1703 he had staged (at Drury Lane) a performance called The Tavern Bilkers, usually regarded as the first English pantomime (he described it as “the first entertainment that appeared on the English Stage, where the Representation and Story was carried on by Dancing Action and Motion only”) but it was The Loves of Mars and Venus (the choreography of which survives) which established Weaver as the major figure in English dance until the twentieth century. Venus was played by Hester Santlow (shown dressed as a harlequin), one of the leading ballerinas of the day, who created many roles for Weaver.

April

Readers of a certain age will remember adverts for Memorex tapes (other brands are available) in which a singer shattered a glass with a high note and the trick was repeated when the tape was played back. Depending on exactly how certain your age is, you may have identified the singer as the great Ella Fitzgerald whose centenary is commemorated on 25 April 2017.

Growing up in a poor district of New York and orphaned in her early teens, Ella spent time in a reformatory but soon escaped and began to enter show business via talent competitions and amateur nights, becoming an established band singer. At the age of 21 she recorded a version of the children’s nursery rhyme A Tisket A Tasket which went on to sell over a million copies. She went on to become one of the greatest of all jazz singers, developing her own idiosyncratic style of ‘scat singing’. All through her career she fought prejudice, refusing to accept any discrimination in hotels and concert venues even when such treatment was  standard in the Southern USA.

You can listen to some of her greatest recordings via the Naxos Music Library and learn more about her career in Oxford Music Online (log in to each with your Westminster library card number).

May

May Day has long been a festival associated with dancing and celebration and more recently with political demonstrations. But 1 May 1517 has become known as Evil May Day. Tensions between native Londoners and foreigners lead one John Lincoln to persuade Dr Bell, the vicar of St Mary’s, Spitalfields to preach against incomers and to call upon “Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal.”. Even though the Under-Sherriff of London (none other than Sir Thomas More)  patrolled the streets, a riot broke out when they tried to arrest an apprentice for breaking the curfew. Soon afterwards, a crowd of young men began to attack foreigners and burn their houses. The rioting continued throughout May Day – fortunately, while some houses were burned down there were no fatalities. More than a thousand soldiers were needed to put down the riot. Lincoln and the other leaders were executed, but most were spared at the instigation of Cardinal Wolsey, who according to Edward Hall

‘fell on his knees and begged the king to show compassion while the prisoners themselves called out “Mercy, Mercy!” Eventually the king relented and granted them pardon. At which point they cast off their halters and “jumped for joy”.’

Sadly this was not the last outburst of anti-foreign feeling in London’s history but such incidents are thankfully rare.

June

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK RowlingA happier event took place on 30 June 1997 with the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.  It’s hard to remember a time when we didn’t all wish we’d received our letter to Hogwarts instead of going to a boring Muggle school.

But we all know about Harry so let’s move on.

July

To 12 July and first documented ride, in 1817, of the ‘dandy horse’ or ‘running machine’ or, to you and me, a bicycle without chains or pedals. This was the first means of transport to make use of the two-wheel principle and the creator was Baron Karl Drais , perhaps the most successful inventor you’ve never heard of, and he managed an impressive 10 miles in an hour. While it looks pretty clunky by today’s standards, Drais was inspired by the Year without a Summer of 1816 when crops failed and there weren’t enough oats to feed horses.

Dandy horse

Readers of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances may remember thar Jessamy in Frederica was very proud of his skill with the ‘pedestrian curricle’. The Observer newspaper was enthralled by the invention of  ‘the velocipede or swift walker’ claiming in 1819 that, on a descent, ‘it equalled a horse at full-speed’ and suggesting that

‘on the  pavements of the Metropolis it might be impelled with great velocity, but this is forbidden. One conviction, under Mr Taylor’s Paving Act, took place on Tuesday. The individual was fined 2/-.’

When he wasn’t inventing bicycles Karl Drais was making an early typewriter, a haybox cooker and a meat grinder.

And on 27 July 1967, we note the 50th anniversary of the decriminalistion of homosexuality.  This will be celebrated with many events throughout the year such as this one at Benjamin Britten’s home and others at various National Trust properties.

August

Most of us can probably remember what we were doing on 31 August 1997 when we heard of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and she will be on many people’s minds as the 20th anniversary of this event approaches.

A slightly more auspicious event took place on 17 August 1917, when the two war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, an event written about by Pat Barker in her novel Regeneration, as well as Stephen Macdonald’s play Not about Heroes. Owen wrote two of his most beloved poems – Dulce Et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth while he was in hospital (he also edited The Hydra, the patients’ magazine) and was tragically killed the following year at the very end of the war. Sassoon survived the war and wrote about his hospital experiences in the autobiographical novel Sherston’s Progress. You can read more about the lives of Owen, Sassoon and the other war poets in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card).

Wilfred Owen 

September

Another literary anniversary is upon us on 21 September, when we note the publication of one of the bestselling fantasy books of all time – The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, about a small, shy creature who becomes involved in a quest for a dragon’s hoard. It was offered first to the publisher Stanley Unwin who asked his 10 year old son Raynor to review it for him,

Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exiting (sic) time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home – rich!

This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.”

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienThe book was an instant success thanks to glowing newspaper reviews (The Manchester Guardian wrote ‘The quest of the dragon’s treasure  – rightfully the dwarves treasure – makes an exciting epic of travel, magical adventures, and – working up to a devastating climax, war. Not a story for pacifist children. Or is it?’) and has never been out of print. While embarking on the sequel, The Lord of the Rings, is a pretty daunting task, The Hobbit is still funny and exciting and highly recommended to that clichéd group – children of all ages.

October

The audience at Warner’s Theatre in New York on 6 October 1927 knew they were going to see an exciting new movie, but none of them could have predicted that motion pictures would never be the same again. The Jazz Singer was the first feature film with synchronised singing – no dialogue had been planned but the star, Al Jolson, couldn’t resist adlibbing on set and his ‘Wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet’ (in fact, his stage catchphrase) has electrified audiences ever since.

The film was a huge hit making over $2,000,000 (having cost only $400,000) and Jolson became an international star. The movies didn’t look back and within three years, silent film was a thing of the past.

The Jazz singer posterTo be honest, seen now, the film (about a Jewish boy who defies his father to sing jazz) is slow, sentimental and creaky, and the less said about Al Jolson’s penchant for blackface the better, but it’s worth checking out his performance to see the sort of charisma that sold out Broadway theatres for 20 years.

You can also see how fan magazines reported it at the time by checking out the Lantern site – a fantastic archive of Hollywood magazines that will keep film buffs busy for days…

November

As of 2015 there were 5640 female clergy in the Church of England (with 14,820 men) and it’s predicted that women will make up 43% of the clergy by 2035. Yet the General Synod only voted to allow women priests (against fierce opposition from conservatives) on 25 November 1992. Now they are central to the life of the Church of England  and most of their opponents have been won over. Some of this can, of course, be attributed to The Vicar of Dibley with Dawn French as the eponymous lady priest, but they’re now so much part of the landscape that even Ambridge, home of the Archers has had a woman vicar.

December

3 December will be the 50th anniversary of the first heart transplant operationperformed by the South African surgeon Christian Barnard. The first patient, Lewis Washkansky, died 18 days after the operation (though he was  able to walk and talk after the transplant). The second patient to receive a heart was a baby who sadly didn’t survive the operation, but the third patient, Philip Blaiberg lived for another nineteen months. Six months later, in May 1968, the first British heart transplant took place at the National Heart Hospital in  Westmoreland Street, Marylebone. Now about 3,500 heart transplants take place each year and 50% of patients live for at least 10 years. So while none of us want one, it’s good to know they’re available.

Christiaan Barnard

You can find out more about these events and many more in our 24/7 library and of course the in the libraries themselves. Happy 2017!

[Nicky]

Who Lived Where: The London Blue Plaque Scheme

William Ewart's blue plaque at Hampton Public LibraryWith over nine thousand plaques mounted on buildings scattered throughout the capital, the London Blue Plaques scheme is well known. In some streets of central London, almost all the buildings display a plaque, or even more than one. What you may not be aware of is that the interesting scheme celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Here’s a short history:

William Ewart, a Liberal MP, suggested that the government should start this scheme to honour significant London residents in 1863. The idea was rejected due to cost, but three years later in 1866 the Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of Arts) took the scheme on.

Napoleon III's blue plaque in Kings Street, St JamesThe first two plaques were erected in 1867. The first commemorated the poet Lord Byron at his birthplace, 24 Holles Street off Cavendish Square, but was later destroyed with the demolition of the house. The second plaque in Kings Street, St James was erected to the exiled French emperor Napoleon III London residence.  This has survived.

William Ewart is in the select group who are commemorated with more than one plaque. English Heritage, the current custodians of the scheme, now restrict the scheme to a single plaque per person however many addresses that individual had. William Ewart is commemorated in central London but also his former house which is now Hampton Public Library in south west London (see picture above). This is a particularly fitting commemoration as, whilst an MP, William Ewart introduced a bill that became Britain’s first Public Library Act setting up a network of free public libraries..

The London Blue Plaque Guide by Nick RennisonI think it is fair to say that for many years this scheme has favoured establishment figures and there has been a definite bias towards males. Currently only 13% of the total commemorate women. Recognising this, English Heritage is making concerted efforts to get proposals from the public for female candidates.
Westminster is home to plaques for several ‘non-establishment’ figures, including Crimean war nurse Mary Seacole and, unusually, one commemorating an event rather than a person: The Cato Street Conspiracy, which was a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister and Cabinet in 1820.

Mary Seacole's blue plaque in Soho Square, London   Blue plaque for the Cato Street conspiracy, 1820

Biographical details for these and other blue plaque entries can be found on the English Heritage website. You can find out more in one of the many Blue Plaque guides available from your library. However, for a more comprehensive, detailed biography why not use your library membership to consult the Oxford Dictionary of  National Biography online? Nearby, Kensington Central Library also holds a Biographies special collection of approximately 80,000 books, to which annually over 1,000 new titles are added.

[Francis]

Before Tufty, SPLINK and the Green Cross Man

Never underestimate the importance of road safety, or the voice of the entertainment industry!

Cal McCord. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Black and white photograph of cowboy Cal McCord with the First and Second prize winners in Weymouth Beauty Contest sitting on his horse Ladybird.

The City of Westminster Archives Centre staff have uncovered the predecessor of the hedgehogs that taught the youth of today to look both ways before crossing the street. Cal McCord was a celebrity cowboy involved in a road safety campaign touring from London to Leicester. He also appeared in classics like BBC Children’s How to Become a Cowboy (1953) and Never Take Sweets From a Stranger (1960).

These black and white photographs show cowboy Cal McCord in a variety of scenes in an album which was compiled and captioned by the man himself – click on the images to enlarge and read his captions. The photographs have been taken around London and next to famous landmarks in Westminster. They feature other local figures like the then-Mayor of Westminster and the First and Second prize winners in the Weymouth Beauty Contest. His constant companion, self-proclaimed to be beloved above the rest, is his horse Ladybird.

Cal McCord photograph album. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

“The Mayor of Westminster, Alderman Rice, (looks like he’s brought his corporation with him????) handing me the Road Safety Message which I was to hand to the Lord Mayor of leicester at the end of the journey in Victoria Park there. It is worth nothing that this picture was taken in the Victoria Tower Gardens at the foot of the houses of parliament. Ladybird didn’t like the umbrella, look at her expression.”

The album dates from the 1950s. McCord lived at 21 Fontaine Road and Ladybird was stabled at Hilcote Stables, Wimbledon Common.

We have this gem in our collection, which we’d love for you to come to see, but if you’d like to know more about his life and works, the Cal McCord Collection was bequethed to the V&A Department of Theatre and Performance.

[Michelle]