Tag Archives: London

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]

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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]

A look ahead to 2016

Well, 2015 is almost over, which means it’s time to look forward to 2016 and see what anniversaries we will be commemorating. It’s a particularly interesting year for them.

January

One of the great unsung heroes of medicine will be remembered on 1 January (or if he isn’t, he should be!). On that date in 1916, Oswald Hope Robertson, a British born research scientist from Harvard  Medical School, then working in France, carried out the first successful blood transfusion using blood that had been stored and refrigerated.

There had been blood transfusions before (the soon-to-be-more-famous-as-an-architect Christopher Wren experimented on injecting fluids into dogs as early as 1857) but the donor and the recipient had both needed to be present as there was no way of storing the blood for later use. Robertson is usually credited with setting up the first blood bank and thus being instrumental in saving thousands of lives. So think about him if you donate blood or if you are someone who needs a transfusion. And of course, with any reference to blood donation, a mention of Tony Hancock becomes compulsory: “A pint! That’s very nearly an armful!


February

February brings with it the 90th anniversary of Black History Month. Yes, we know that this is commemorated in October in Britain but in the USA it’s in February. The first events were in the second week of February (chosen because it coincided with the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and the great abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass) when the historian Carter G Woodson of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History announced the first Negro History Week.

This was taken up by school boards in North Carolina, Delaware and West Virginia and was soon successful enough that other states followed. By the 1970s, the week had become a month and had renamed itself as Black History Month. In Britain it has been celebrated since 1987 and is now a national institution.


March

There’s no doubt that one of the biggest anniversaries next year will be in July when football fans will be celebrating 50 years since England last won a major tournament. All very tedious for those of us not in thrall to the beautiful game but even non-footie fans will want to remember an associated story from 19 March 1966 when the World Cup was stolen from Westminster Central Hall where it was on display at a stamp exhibition. A £4,500 reward (about £70,00 in today’s money according to the excellent Measuring Worth site) was offered. A ransom note asking for £15,000 was received (the thief probably should have gone for the stamps which were worth £3 million) and the chap who posted it was soon arrested but the real thieves were never found.

However the cup was found, by the hero of the hour – Pickles, a border collie who spotted a newspaper wrapped package next to a car in South Norwood and soon uncovered the missing trophy. Read more about the story in the Guardian:

“Now Pickles began the life of a celebrity. He starred in a feature film, The Spy with the Cold Nose, and appeared on Magpie, Blue Peter and many other TV shows. He was made Dog of the Year, awarded a year’s free supply of food from Spillers and there were offers to visit Chile, Czechoslovakia and Germany.”

Pickles received an appropriate reward and British Pathé was there to capture the moment:


April

April is going to be Bardtastic as the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare will be remembered on 23 April (Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote died on the same day so expect to hear plenty about him). Shakespeare’s Globe will be projecting 23 short films on the South Bank of the Thames, one for each of the plays. They’ll probably being putting on some theatre too.

A more lowbrow commemoration will be on 11 April, 80 years after the first Butlins holiday camp opened in Skegness (which as we all know, is ‘so bracing’) in 1936. The camp was opened by Amy Johnson, the pioneer aviator and was an instant success. A week’s holiday with three meals a day and all the knobbly knees competitions you could eat would have set you back 36 shillings and people flocked there, though three years later the camp was requisitioned for use as a naval training camp. Read about the history of Butlins in Sylvia Endacott’s Butlin’s: 75 years of fun!


May


Five years later on 9 May 1941, an event took place that got little publicity at the time but which literally changed the course of the war. On that day the German submarine U-110 was captured by the Royal Navy, and with it an Enigma machine complete with code books. Fortunately the Germans didn’t realise that the machine had been retrieved (the submarine commander tried to scuttle it rather than allow it to be captured and he himself drowned) and so it became a vital part of the code breaking activities at Bletchley Park led by Alan Turing.

The Imitation GameThere are plenty of books about Bletchley available in Westminster Libraries – find out lots more in a previous blog post on the subject – or you could borrow and watch the recent film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch.


June

PocahontasMoving back in time, 12 June sees the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Rebecca Rolfe from Virginia with her husband and baby son Thomas. She stayed at the Bell Savage Inn in Ludgate Hill (which itself had a very interesting history, being a former theatre) and soon became the toast of the town, being presented to King James I, attending a masque by Ben Jonson and having her portrait painted by the Dutch artist Simon de Passe. Sadly though, London didn’t suit her health and she planned to return to Virginia the following year, but tragically died at Gravesend without seeing her homeland again.

Why am I telling you all this? Because Rebecca Rolfe, better known by her Algonquian name of Pocahontas was one of the first native born Americans to visit this country. You may have  seen the Disney film but the reality is much more interesting. You can read about how Pocahontas saved the life of Captain John Smith and ensured peace between her people and the English settlers in A man most driven: Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the founding of America.


July

Castleton Knight advert, 1923Readers of cinema trade journals in the 1920s would have noticed adverts for Castleton Knight (a producer and distributor) who claimed he could ‘show a perfect picture through any fog’. This boast seems rather baffling now but anyone who attended the cinema before 1956 would have known exactly what the problem was – smog. This didn’t just affect the streets of London and other cities – it found its way into buildings too.

In 1952 an opera at Sadlers Wells had to be cancelled and the leading lady was treated for smoke damage. It has been calculated that 4000 people died in just a few days in 1952 as a direct consequence of the London smog.

On 5 July 1956 the Clean Air Act was passed, which introduced smoke control areas in which only smokeless fuels could be used and which ensured the removal of power stations from cities among other measures. Smog, in Britain at least, is a thing of the past though other countries certainly have a way to go to reduce air pollution.

You can read about the smog in The Big Smoke: a history of air pollution in London since medieval times, by Peter Brimblecombe. Or you could check out some contemporary newspaper reports – a picture in the Illustrated London News shows the Christmas Tree being erected in Trafalgar Square four days late because of the smog.
(And no, we don’t know what Castleton Knight’s invention actually was).


August

If this article had been published by Westminster Libraries 25 years ago, it would have been typed on an electric typewriter or perhaps a PC with a basic word processing programme and then sent out in a paper newsletter rather than being researched and published online. Not that many of us would have known what the word online meant. There were online databases but it was a laborious process logging on to each one individually and then printing out search results and few but academics had access to the right computers and modems anyway.

However all this changed thanks to Tim Berners Lee, the father of the World Wide Web. While the first website went live in December 1990, it was on 6 August 1991 that Berners-Lee posted a summary of the World Wide Web project on several internet newsgroups, which marked the debut of the web as a publicly available service on the internet.

You can still read Berners-Lee’s post here. Subsequently he has been knighted, awarded the Order of Merit, named by Time Magazine as one the Hundred most important people of the twentieth century and even took part in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.


September

The World Wide Web has certainly changed all our lives. A smaller, but no less important event – for the people of London anyway – took place on 2 September 1666, 350 years ago when a fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane and raged for 5 days. Over 400 acres of London were destroyed including approximately 13,000 houses and 67 of the 109 city churches as well as St Pauls Cathedral.  A witness to the Great Fire of London was the diarist Samuel Pepys, who ‘saw a lamentable fire’ with

“Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the River or bringing them into lighters that lay off. Poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.”

Old St Paul's Cathedral in flames
It took nearly half a century to rebuild the City, with St Pauls not completed until 1711.

By Permission of Heaven: the story of the Great Fire of London, by Adrian TinniswoodFor a first hand account of the city before the Fire, have a look at John Stow’s Survey of London, published in 1603, which describes in detail many of the churches and other buildings that were destroyed in 1666. For more on the Fire itself, you could listen to the podcast on the subject from Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time or you could read Adrian Tinniswood’s By Permission of Heaven: the story of the Great Fire of London.


October

In October 1941, 75 years ago, a magazine called Liliput published a cartoon of a group of schoolgirls reading a notice with the caption “Owing to the international situation, the match with St Trinian’s has been postponed.” The cartoonist, Ronald Searle, was to spend most of the war as a prisoner of the Japanese, though he continued drawing even in the terrible conditions of Changi. On his return home he began to submit cartoons to Punch, The Strand, Radio Times and other magazines and his first book, Hurrah for St Trinian’s and other lapses was published in 1948.

St Trinian's : the entire appalling business - Ronald SearleThe ghastly schoolgirls were soon followed by their schoolboy equivalent, eternal prep school cynic Nigel Molesworth but it was St Trinians which remained Searle’s greatest success. The school, with its pupils more interested in the racing results than their education and disreputable staff soon inspired a series of successful films along with several more books, and the cartoons were collected together as St Trinian’s : the entire appalling business.

St Trinians  was even revived in the twenty first century with two more films starring Rupert Everett and Colin Firth and no doubt will continue to entertain and horrify for many years to come.


November

One anniversary that will definitely not go unmarked, by the BBC at least, falls on 2 November 1936 when the television service officially opened (though there had been experimental transmissions since 1932). Until the war put an end to television (the engineers were need for more important work), programmes were only broadcast within a 40 mile radius of Alexandra Palace and by 1939, 23,000 licences had been sold. The Times was impressed with the first day’s transmission

“As seen on the small screen of a receiver in Broadcasting House, the inaugural ceremony was more successful than those previously unacquainted with the achievements of television had expected… the very successful transmissions of the male television announcer suggested that there is a technique to be learned by those who wish to be well-televised.”


December

The final anniversary of the year is, appropriately enough, a festive one. For  Christmas 1616 King James I requested a masque (a courtly entertainment involving singing, dancing and general razzamatazz) from the poet Ben Jonson. Christmas, his masque begins

Enter Christmas, with two or three of the Guard.

He is attir’d in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white Shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse, and his Drum beaten before him.

While he’s not actually *called* Father Christmas, he is soon followed by his 10 children – Carol, Misrule, Gambol, Offering, Wassail, Mumming, New-Year’s-Gift, Post and Pair,  Minced-Pie and Baby-Cake, each followed by a torch-bearer carrying marchpane, cakes and wine. It seems that this was the first time Christmas had been personified so 2016 can really be considered his 400th birthday. Find out more about the history of Father Christmas.


We’ve mentioned lots of books and online resources above, but if you want to find out more about these or any other anniversaries throughout the year, there’s much more to be found using both the 24/7 Library and of course the libraries themselves – search the catalogue and see where it takes you!

[Nicky]

Explore Your Archive

Explore your archive badges

The now annual UK and Ireland Explore Your Archive week, co-ordinated by the National Archives and the Archives and Records Association, falls this year on 14-22 November. In  2015, Explore Your Archive takes democracy as its theme, chiming in with the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta and Parliament in the Making 2015.

Explore your archive: democracy

Westminster City Archives is rich in records of representative politics in Westminster, at parochial, metropolitan, and national levels. We hold the records of the Westminster parish vestries, the organs of local government prior to 1900, and those of their successors the metropolitan boroughs of Paddington, St Marylebone, and the City of Westminster. The three boroughs were incorporated as the new City of Westminster in 1965.

The Common Garden Orator by Isaac Cruickshank, 1800. Image property of Westminster City Archives

“The common garden orator – or aut Caesar aut nullis [either Caesar or nothing]  …, My Dear Friends & Constituents, had I not possessed Principles suited to all occasions I never could have sat so long in the House as I have done …”, by Isaac Cruickshank, 1800, a satire on Fox’s alleged opportunism and lack of integrity. Image property of Westminster City Archives

During the late Georgian period the parliamentary seats of Westminster were the most important in the country, carrying great prestige and influence. Voting patterns and public debates in the borough were viewed as a barometer of national political opinion and temper. Given the importance of the seats and that they were largely the preserve of the aristocracy and family favour, Westminster became the home of several veins of radical politics, challenging the old oligarchy and the commonplace corruption, bribery and intimidation that accompanied elections.

The Westminster elections of the period are illuminated in an engaging and entertaining way by the fine collection of contemporary political caricatures and cartoons held at the Archives Centre. The prints depict those occupying or aspiring to Westminster borough parliamentary seats variously as wild and dangerous revolutionaries/courageous reforming statesmen, brazen rogues/ heroes of the people, dishonest charlatans/righteous tribunes – all depending on who the satirical artist was attacking or promoting.

A Great Man in Distress, or how to grow rich... by William Dent, 1793. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

“A great man in distress or, How to grow rich & avoid becoming chargable to the Parish.  A subscription experiment” by William Dent, 1793, a satire on Fox’s fund-raising. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Prominent among the Westminster reformers was Charles James Fox, by far the most caricatured figure of his age and a favoured victim of the graphic satirists James Gillray, Isaac Cruickshank, William Dent and others. Fox was a powerful orator, an advocate of parliamentary reform, opponent of the transatlantic slave trade, rake, gambler, hairy, corpulent – and the butt of countless satirical prints.

A selection of satirical prints together with other drawings, photographs and documents revealing the city of Westminster’s representative politics over the centuries is currently on display at the Archives Centre. Do come and explore!

Explore your archive

[Rory]

A Controversial Sculptor: Jacob Epstein in Westminster

Looking up in London by Jane PeytonJane Peyton in her book Looking up in London draws the reader’s attention to the often unobserved hidden architectural features above eye-level. I discovered a good example of this recently in Marylebone during a lunchtime walk along Wigmore Street. On the north side of Cavendish Square is Dean’s Mews, which contains a striking statue of the Madonna and Child suspended upon an arch.

Intrigued by this imposing but unlabeled sculpture I did a quick internet search and discovered that the sculptor was Jacob Epstein. This is not the only public piece of sculpture by him within the borough. He was also commissioned in 1908 for the British Medical Association (now Zimbabwe House) building façade 18 large nude sculptures. The architect for this building was Charles Holden who also designed the 1929 London Underground headquarters at 55 Broadway, Holden commissioned Epstein again to decorate this façade with the nude sculptures Day and Night above the entrance. These also stirred up controversy with protestors objecting to the sculpture on moral grounds.

Dean’s Mews, Cavendish Square: Jacob Epstain's Our Lady and the Holy Child

Now owned by The Kings Fund, the Dean’s Mews buildings were formally occupied by the Convent of the Holy Child of Jesus. The sisters had previously occupied cramped accommodation near Marylebone High Street but, needing more space for their teaching activities, they moved here in 1889.

Bombed in the Second World War, the convent commissioned the architect Louis Osman to restore the damaged buildings and also to create the linking bridge across the mews. It was his idea to include a statute of the Madonna and Child “levitating” against the bridge’s façade; the statue to be cast from roofing lead acquired from the bombed building. Osman independently commissioned Jacob Epstein to design the cast for the statue which caused a further artistic controversy.

Our Lady and the Holy Child by Jacob Epstein

This was due to people questioning whether it was appropriate for a Jew (Epstein) to create a Christian image and there were also requested alterations to the statue’s faces. The statue was formally unveiled on 14 May 1953. The Times reported this ceremony – you can read a facsimile in The Times Digital Archive (log in with your library card number). It’s also worth checking out other 24/7 resources for artistic and biographical information on Jacob Epstein, such as the Art & Design section and The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Please note that some of the listed art resources can only be accessed in-house at Westminster Reference Library. You will also need to visit the library if you’d like to consult Richard Cork’s well known biography of the artist.

Jacob Epstein by Richard CorkApart from the sculpture discussed above, other examples of Epstein’s work can be found in the borough at Tate Britain. The gallery includes his famous sculpture “Torso in Metal” [Rock Drill] – seen reproduced on the cover of Richard Cork’s biography, together with several other displayed paintings and drawings.

Jacob Epstein is of course not the only sculptor to create public works of art in London. Rupert Hill’s book Walking London’s Statues and Monuments is one of several guide books for the curious explorer of London’s treasures.

[Francis]