Rediscovering the Metropolitan Cattle Market in a quiet park in Islington – where once over 15,000 animals were sold daily

21 Aug

For centuries London’s cattle market was Smithfield on the eastern fringes of the City. Drovers brought animals down what is today the A1, which incorporates Holloway Road and Upper Street in Islington, on long journeys from Scotland and the north of England. The animals would then often be fattened up in fields on the outskirts of the urban area of the capital so they could get the highest possible price at market.

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Surviving distinctive clock tower from Metropolitan Cattle Market

As London grew and became more built-up, animals driven through the streets of Islington were regarded as a nuisance. By the Victorian era, with reports of unhygienic conditions and poor treatment of cattle at Smithfield campaigners began to intensify their calls for the livestock market to be re-located outside the city. Thomas Maslen’s view of the market in 1843 is in keeping with the opinions of many at the time:

“Of all the horrid abominations with which London has been cursed, there is not one that can come up to that disgusting place, West Smithfield Market, for cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, disgusting and shuddering sights, and every obnoxious item that can be imagined; and this abomination is suffered to continue year after year, from generation to generation, in the very heart of the most Christian and most polished city in the world.”

Petitions were signed by everyone from bankers and traders to local residents and aldermen. And even Dickens criticised the state of Smithfield in his 1851 essay A Monument of a French Folly.

With the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1852 the decision was taken to construct a new cattle-field on Copenhagen Fields, then distinctly rural, but now a densely populated, residential area off Caledonian Road. The Metropolitan Cattle Market (later known simply as Caledonian Market) was designed by the Corporation’s architect James Bunstone Bunning and opened in 1855 on a 75-acre site. Smithfield would later become a new meat market, rather than a place where live animals were sold.

What made the Islington site particularly attractive was that it was within easy reach of the newly opened Great Northern Railway and North London Railway. Good transport connections were essential given how busy the venture would become. George Birch, wrote in the Descriptive Album of London (c. 1896) that it was “an immense emporium for the sale of sheep, cows, pigs, and calves, formerly held in Smithfield. The market days are Mondays and Thursdays, and great numbers of animals are exhibited for sale, especially on Mondays, when they sometimes number over 15,700.” And as the Morning Chronicle noted in a June 1855 account about the market’s opening day conditions were much improved compared to Smithfield:

“The accommodation for each animal will be much larger, and thus will be removed one of the great defects of the old market – a defect not only tending to deteriorate the quality of the meat we when brought to market, but also to the infliction of the most cruel suffering upon the inoffensive e animals which were subjected to it. In Smithfield there was only a nominal space of from 1 foot 6 inches to 1 foot 8 inches for each bullock; in the new market there will be an actual space of 2 feet for each animal – amply sufficient to allow him to stand easily, and to be handled, though not to lie down.”

Anyone who’s been to this corner of Islington will know that there is no longer a market on Copenhagen Fields; it’s now an attractive park with woodland areas around the edge and, across a road, tennis courts. In the early 20th century, as better storage and refrigeration facilities allowed the trade in live animals to move away from London, a bric-a-brac market was established (which after the Second World War moved to Bermondsey). The markets in Copenhagen Fields finally closed in 1963 after years of considerable decline and later the new park was opened. More recently apartment blocks have been built around the green area. But traces of the old Metropolitan Cattle Market remain, not least a 46-metre high white clock tower which can be seen for miles around and is a listed building.

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Caledonian Park today

Surrounding this structure used to be the offices of the clerk and other officials (where there was an “accurate account of the number of cattle and other stock on sale” posted on the wall, according to the Morning Chronicle), plus the stalls and pens for cattle sheep and pigs. The newspaper also noted that “the whole of the market is surrounded by an exceedingly handsome iron railing; the standards are of a design at once appropriate and elegant, and the shafts are surmounted with the heads of bullocks, in pigs, sheep, or calves, according to the part of the market which the palisades enclose.” While the animal heads have gone, the railings remain.

When the site operated as a market, visitors enjoyed accommodation and entertainment in large public houses at each of the site’s four corners: The Lion, The Lamb, The White Horse and The Black Bull. Today, three of the four buildings remain, although they are no longer licensed premises; they are now used for residential accommodation. Back in the day there was an attempt to control the drunkenness of cattle drovers, as the 1855 Morning Chronicle article noted: “It ought not to be forgotten that the corporation, not unmindful of the change which has of recent years taken place in the habits of these men and of the drovers, has made it an express condition in the leases that coffee as well as intoxicating drinks shall be supplied on reasonable terms.”

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Once a public house used by patrons of Metropolitan Cattle Market

While the market spread across the 75-acre site over the years, a contemporary account also described how it led to the expansion of the general area. What was once rural grew to become somewhere that was much more urban and developed:

“Where before were green meadows, are now houses and inns; and by the erection of this great work, the whole character of the suburb has been changed. Quiet and semi-rural, Kentish Town was heretofore a favourite retreat of the toilworn City clerk or Government employs, who sought here repose and change of scene after his day’s work. It might be taken, if not as the u seat of the aurea mediocrilus on which the Roman is poet dwells so fondly, at least of so much thereof is attainable within a four penny fare from the Bank. But, like all sublunary things, the retirement of Kentish Town is destined to change. Into the midst of its eminently respectable seclusion, streets, evidently destined to the accommodation of the transient drover, are rapidly being intruded, and taverns are fast rising, where ere long the uncouth sounds of hearty northern dialects will mingle with the more subdued southern my tones.”

But while some may have grumbled about the new market, Prince Albert who officially opened it in 1855 was much more positive. In a speech to a distinguished audience he commented it was “a work which lot only deserves admiration in itself on account of the excellence of the arrangements, and the magnificence of the design, but which, will I trust, be found eminently conducive to the comfort and health of the city of London.” He said any opposition “arising from such causes will soon cease, and the farmers will doubtless only learn to appreciate the boon thus conferred upon the by the London Corporation….”

The opening day itself was a lavish affair, with his Royal Highness among 1,700 guests “seated at cross tables, ready to partake of a dejeuner” in a specially erected marquee on what is now the park. During his visit, Prince Albert was also apparently particularly enthused to enter the Electric Telegraph Company offices (which were based in the clock tower) and find the machines were working so he could send a message to the British army in Crimea. “This was accordingly done, and the answer was actually received before his Royal Highness left the hospitable board of the corporation,” reported the Morning Chronicle. The paper described the day:

“From all the new inns, whether in the market itself or in the immediate precincts, flags and banners waved in great profusion, while their windows were crowded d with eager spectators. The two new inns in the market itself were appropriated to the accommodation of ladies, to whom tickets of admission were issued by the civic authorities. As many as 400 of the fairer sex were thus accommodated, nor is it necessary to add that the municipal hospitality was also extended to their provision with suitable a refreshments….. On flagstaffs round the marquee were suspended the heads and horns of beasts and the fleeces of sheep, the arms of each county, and a peaceful trophy, we may call it, of agricultural implements.”

Today, the market lives on but only in name. New Caledonian Market is an antiques market in Bermondsey Square, south of the Thames. The old market site in Islington is now the very pleasant Caledonian Park and sports pitches. Bar the clock tower, railings and surviving public house buildings, there are few reminders of what the site used to be. Sitting on a bench reading the paper on a Saturday morning, with barely another soul in the park, it seems strange to think this was once a bustling enterprise that Prince Albert launched with such a lavish dinner.

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Woodland walks at Caledonian Park

Why market traders could soon be chanting ‘Brixton Flower’. The survival of central London’s last windmill and the story of a middle-class suburb

14 Aug

Market day in Brixton is a noisy affair. The minute you step out of the Tube station and onto the main shopping stretch you are struck by a sea of music and chanting. Gospel choirs, steel drum bands and gig promoters all compete for the attention of passers-by. Around the corner, where traders jostle for business, offering everything from handmade soaps to jerk chicken, it gets more hectic still.

But a mere 20 minute walk away there’s a quiet park that provides a historic reminder of how Brixton used to be. Hidden away at the end of a residential street, off Brixton Hill, and almost missed because of a wall of trees, is central London’s last surviving windmill. When it was built in 1816 the complex, which included various lost outbuildings, would have been surrounded by open farm land for miles around – the neighbouring Brixton prison didn’t open until 1820.

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What’s remarkable about Brixton Windmill is that for its entire service – it operated from 1817 to 1934 (albeit not continuously) – it remained in the hands of the Ashby family, passed down from generation to generation. Now cared for by the Friends of Windmill Gardens, you can climb to virtually the top of this 49 foot brick structure, which has two types of white sails and is covered with tar to shield it from the rain, on open days. Volunteers will accompany you up wooden ladders to the various levels and there are also information panels in the adjoining Windmill Gardens, a green space with play equipment and where children kick footballs around.

Below the ‘dust floor’, was the ‘bin floor’ where John Ashby, an Irish Quaker, and those that followed him as millers at the site hauled sacks of grain or meal ready for the start of the flour producing process. The original sack hoist, with its various ropes and pulleys, and which was used to bring up the raw material through a series of trap doors in the building remains in place today. From the ‘bin floor’ grain moved by gravity through small gaps to the ‘stone floor’ below where the actually milling process took place. One of the original Derbyshire grey mill stones (another is set in grass outside) and cast iron spur wheel which was turned by the winds power remains in the position where it was set at the start of the venture’s operating life.

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Original Derbyshire grey mill stone and spur wheel

The Ashby family transferred their operations to a water mill on the Wandle at Mitcham in 1862 as there wasn’t sufficient wind power at the Brixton site (it was said “the tall Victorian Mansions built around it in the mid-19th century robbed it of wind”). For 50 years the tower at Brixton Mill was used as little more than a store. But when the lease at Mitcham expired in 1902, they returned to the original site. Given the reduced wind power, the Ashby’s installed a completely new, steam-powered engine (later converted to gas) to power the cast iron provender mill. This is also on show today to visitors of the volunteer-led guided tours.

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New steam-powered mill (installed 1902)

When the last miller, Joshua Ashby (grandson of John) closed the mill in 1934, a year before his death at the age of 77, the building faced an uncertain future. The following report provided an overview of what was there at the time:

“It stands well back from the road, access being obtained by a small carriage way running past the mill cottage and there is a fairly large yard in front of the mill. All old machinery has been removed from the mill and modern machinery installed, but the mill building is in excellent condition … there is a range of outbuildings built around the base of the mill extending up to the level of the first floor. These are very extensive and appear to be in very fair order. The whole place would make a most excellent unemployment centre or club premises … The mill is of great interest as being almost unique in London, and is quite typical of the traditional practice of windmills built at the time of its erection. It would be a great pity if such a landmark of Old Lambeth was destroyed.”

There were several attempts to buy the structure and there was even a proposal to build flats on the site. But then in 1957 London County Council bought the property and adjoining land. While the mill house, bakery and other outbuildings were demolished, work soon began to renovate the tower, which included bringing some machinery from derelict mills elsewhere in the country and making new sails. The restoration process has been ongoing for more than 50 years, with a key milestone being the formation of the Friends of Windmill Gardens in 2003. It now seems in very good condition.

But to get a sense of how Brixton developed in the years after the windmill was built you need to return back to the busy shopping streets. While building began on open fields in the wider area in the early 19th century (particularly after the opening of Vauxhall Bridge in 1816 which improved access to central London), progress was slow until the first railway line (the Catham Main Line) arrived in the 1860s. Expensive housing and shops sprung up quickly as a result and within 30 years it was transformed into a bustling middle class suburb. Brixton had the first street in London to be lit by electricity in 1880 – later named Electric Avenue.

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The hustle and bustle of Brixton

Against a backdrop of developers planning new lucrative projects, the Brixton Society is doing a wonderful job fighting to conserve heritage in the area and I was lucky my visit coincided with one of their monthly guided tours. As we weaved around the market streets and under viaducts we saw some of the oldest surviving buildings in Brixton, dating from just after the arrival of the railways (one is now a butcher’s shop). We also took in several pubs from the area’s early history, including the Black Horse pub (c1870 and now a Halifax branch) and the Railway Hotel, built against the railway viaduct and featuring a six-sided clock tower that could be read by passengers of the different lines (it’s been empty for 20 years, but graffiti has recently been removed and there is talk of a new restaurant opening).

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Brixton’s former Railway Hotel

Brixton is recognised for having Britain’s first department store – Bon Marche opened in 1877, a business later bought out by John Lewis. When it closed its doors for the last time in 1976, the lavish structure was empty for some time. Today it’s partially occupied by TK Maxx. Brixton in general was considered an important retail destination by the 1925, with many major stores in the area. Later, in 1928, the country’s first British Home Stores opened on Brixton Road (today the building is occupied by Superdrug). From here it grew to be a major, nationwide retail chain.

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Britain’s first department store – Bon Marche

As discussed at the outset, Brixton is famed for its markets. Street markets have of course seen a resurgence in recent years, with everything from fruit and vegetables to a farmers’ market. And from the 1930s covered markets also emerged. Walking through the biggest of these today – Brixton Village – you could have been forgiven thinking you’ve entered a giant food court. With gentrification, new eateries and trendy coffee shops have sprung up, with many of these staying open late into the evening – long after the clothing and food stalls have packed away. But as our guide pointed out, restrictions are now in place preventing more than 50 per cent of the outlets being used for selling food, thus stopping the traditional traders being completely forced out.

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Inside Brixton Village covered market

While Brixton started out as a middle class suburb, by the early 20th century the make-up of the area changed and there was an influx of working classes. Many large houses built soon after the arrival of the railways were converted into flats and boarded houses. The shopping area grew to be the largest in South London, with plenty of entertainment options such as cinemas, pubs and theatres. Brixton was bombed heavily during the Second World War and in the years that followed in the 1940s and 1950s many immigrants from West Indies settled in the suburb. There have been considerable problems with crime and disorder in the area in recent decades (not least the 1981 riot which some have said involved 5,000 people), but it now feels like somewhere that is on the up. It’s a long way from the rural place of 200 years ago.

Back at Brixton Mill, there was much excitement amongst the volunteers as the day before I visited they had successfully produced flour for the first time for many years. But the giant white sails I saw glistening in the late afternoon sun hadn’t needed to turn; it was powered using the engine installed in 1902 when the Ashby’s returned to mill at the site. Originally steam-powered, the Friends of Windmill Gardens have recently converted it to electricity. More work needs to be done to check the machinery is working safely and it is hoped the project will be complete by the mill’s 200th anniversary in 2016. It may not been long before market traders down the road are chanting the words ‘Brixton Flower.’

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Brixton Prison – as seen from Brixton Windmill

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Brixton Village covered market

“…houses in which our work-people will be able to live and be comfortable…” – living history at Port Sunlight model village

7 Aug

Entrepreneurs will tell you that to succeed in business the political environment needs to be right. For William Hesketh Lever, the son of a wholesale grocer from Bolton, the removal of tax on soap and the government’s desire to promote a clean living agenda amongst working classes created a unique opportunity. Sunlight Soap, the first product made by the manufacturer’s new firm Lever Brothers, not only brought enormous personal wealth but was also the beginnings of the company we now called Unilever.

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Lever House – the first offices at Port Sunlight

With his brother James Darcy Lever (hence the company name) he leased a factory in Warrington and production began in 1886. The ingredients they used were of the highest quality, with no silicate of soda and more vegetable oil than tallow. Thanks partly to efficient marketing and sales – packs were branded with the Lever name from the start, orders flooded in from around the world. Little would the pair have known that what they started would grow into one of world’s biggest consumer goods companies.

Production quickly grew from 20 to 450 tons of soap, but it soon became apparent that it was not going to be possible to extend the Warrington factory and so a new site needed to be found. The firm opted to buy 24 acres of cheap, marshy ground on the Wirral peninsula which they called Port Sunlight (named because the land was conveniently near an offshoot of the River Mersey and also as a result of what they produced there) for the factory and a further 32 acres for the village.

But for Lever the Port Sunlight project was so much more than just about building a factory to handle a bulging order book. He had a social conscience and was determined to create decent housing and amenities for workers on the new site. Given the squalor and cramped living conditions that many would have faced in inner city slums moving to Port Sunlight was quite literally a breadth of fresh air. There had of course been attempts at creating quality accommodation for workers in the past, but this was the first time it was combined with the idea of a garden village. Lever set out his vision for the site at the ceremony of cutting the first sod for the new factory in 1888:

“It is my hope and my brother’s hope … to build houses in which our work-people will be able to live and be comfortable. Semi-detached houses, with gardens back and front, in which they will be able to know more about the science of life than they can in a back slum, and in which they will learn that there is more enjoyment in life than in the mere going to and returning from work, and looking to Saturday night to draw their wages.”

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Cottage homes at Port Sunlight

So as well as creating spacious homes surrounded by plenty of green space and gardens, Lever Brothers built places where workers could enjoy their leisure time. By 1909 there were 28 self-supporting clubs and societies in the village. And the site would grow to 130 acres with some 900 houses and nine public buildings, plus allotments and extensive parks (one of which had an amphitheatre with open air performances).

Arriving at Port Sunlight by train from Liverpool, 125 years after the first factory building was open, it’s just a short walk to the works entrance. Although no longer producing soap bars, Unilever does still manufacture liquids such as detergents here. Of course the commercial buildings have grown considerably since 1888 but the original office block remains – the boardroom in Liver House is meant to be particularly exquisite.

Across the road the Gladstone Theatre is today used by a local performance company (Grease the musical was advertised on one of the billboards when I passed). It was the first assembly and recreation hall on the site, and also served temporarily as canteen for male workers until that function was moved inside the main building. Lever said it was “the most appropriate Village Hall we have. It is simple and unpretentious, admirably adapted for the purpose for which it was designed, and most suitable and appropriate for erection in a village.”

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More homes at Port Sunlight

The name for structure (it was originally Gladstone Hall) is particularly fitting as Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, was greatly respected by Lever, after all abolishing tax on soap and then paper made it possible for companies like his to make soap in large quantities and then advertise it effectively. “…no trade in the country owes so much to yourself as the industry we are engaged in,” said Lever at the opening of Gladstone Hall in 1891. “It was in April 1853 that you removed the duty on soap, and thereby made the manufacture on a large and scientific scale possible. It was in 1861 you removed the duty from paper, and so gave the country its greatest boon; a free and cheap Press. With a duty on paper, a cheap press was impossible, and therefore also a large circulation. Without a large circulation it would be useless to advertise.”

But this was about more than just business kick-backs. Lever shared many of Gladstone views on politics and he became a Liberal Member of Parliament from 1906 to 1909. In the commons he called for the national introduction of old age pensions (he already provided them for his staff by that stage) and in 1907 the Invalidity and Accidents Pensions Act was passed. Lever also campaigned for a shorter working day for factory workers (he introduced the eight hour day at his factories in 1894). He demanded better health and safety at work, and on his own premises was regarded as a pioneer in this movement. And he was one of the first employers to give employees a share of the profits.

Education was very important for Lever and two schools were built at Port Sunlight. Under company rules those aged 14 to 18 had to attend night school to better themselves. There was also a cottage hospital, which has today been converted to a boutique hotel. The care that Lever took of the people did really make a difference. While the average annual death rate in Liverpool was 20/100, in the village it was just 9/100. “The visitor is struck at once by the generally healthy appearance of the people,” noted W. L George in a 1909 account of Port Sunlight. “The appearance of the children is remarkable, for they are usually fat, rosy, and impressibly cheerful.”

Walking through the streets and parks of Port Sunlight is a good way to spend a couple of hours sunny Sunday afternoon. In Lever’s day, strict rules meant tenants were made to keep their homes in good shape (helped of course by the threat of random inspections at any point) and it seems standards have been kept up. Homeowners (representing today about two thirds of the 900 homes) and leaseholders must comply with strict building rules. They wouldn’t be able to put modern PVC windows at the front of their homes for example. The public open spaces are cared for by a team of six gardeners, partly paid for by a nominal £1 maintenance charge collected from each of the homes every year.

Lever loved buildings and personally oversaw the development of Port Sunlight. He employed a team of 30 architects to ensure that the construction styles didn’t become monotonous. The quality (they cost around £250 each to build, far higher than other workers’ houses at the time) and detail in carvings is phenomenal. Although individual, most consisted of three or four bedrooms, with a kitchen, scullery, larder and “each house has the exceptional luxury of a bathroom.”

Just as important for Lever was the space surrounding each home, with him arguing that the “building of ten to twelve houses to acre is the maximum that ought to be allowed…. Houses should be built a minimum of 15 feet from the roadway…. every house should have space available in the rear for a vegetable garden. Open spaces for recreation should be laid out at frequent and convenient centres… A home requires a greensward and garden in front of it, just as much as a cup requires a saucer.”

Perhaps the most impressive view is the long green boulevard stretching from the First World War memorial to the Lady Lever Art Gallery. If it wasn’t for the family homes shaded by trees along either side of the walk, you could think you were in somewhere like outside the White House in Washington. Lever dedicated the gallery to the memory of his wife Elizabeth and it houses the best of the 20,000 items, including furniture, ceramics, textiles and sculpture, he boasted in his personal art collection at his death.

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Stretch leading to Lady Lever Art Gallery

While in his later life Lever travelled the world collecting pieces for personal satisfaction, earlier on he had gained them for business reasons. He bought paintings and added company slogans, encouraging consumers to buy them. “Art has always been to me a stimulating influence; it has always taught me without upbraiding me; elevated me without humbling me; and appealed to me because of the fact that only the best and truest in art survives…. Art can be to everyone an inspiration. It is within the reach of us all,” Lever said at the opening of the gallery in 1922.

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Inside Lady Lever Art Gallery

Opposite the gallery is what was built as the original Girls’ Club. Today the building is a well-laid out museum telling the story of Port Sunlight and it also has a tea room. As we’ve seen, maintenance charges are very low for residents so the Port Sunlight Village Trust, which took over management of the site in 1999, relies on finding additional revenue opportunities, including through letting out luxury holiday cottages.

After building Gladstone Hall, Lever continued building public halls so that residents could enjoy a range of activities. Hulme Hall originally acted as a women’s dining hall, but then became a gallery and later as a hall provided the venue for two early Beatles concerts (one being the first time Ringo Star played with the group). Today, it’s popular with weddings. The Lyceum was built as a school, but was later used as a Sunday school and today is used by the community for meetings and other functions. And he built using red Cheshire sandstone, Christ Church, a nonconformist church.

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Inside Christ Church

Outside, an open air pool was built (today it’s a garden centre) which was heated by power from the factory. And there were separate bowling greens for both men (with accompanying social clubs and both are still in operation today). There really was always plenty going on.

Such was the vision that Lever displayed at the site that at one time 50,000 people (including members of the Royal family) travelled each year from across the world to visit Port Sunlight. Many stayed at the Bridge Inn, an institution which for the first few years of its life was run as a temperance hotel. Despite being a non-drinking nonconformist he decided to let the village to decide what should happen and gave everyone the vote (he hoped the women would vote to keep it dry). But the majority wanted it to serve alcohol and so it became a pub in a modern sense. Today, the exterior remains but the inside has been gutted and it resembles that of any other chain pub (it’s now part of the Sizzling Pub Company Brand).

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The Bridge Inn

While much has changed in this village over the years and it’s lost the connection with the Unilever plant, Lever’s vision still remains on show in the character of the wonderful homes and landscaping. Today, thousands of tourists come to marvel at this example of utopia. But had its architect known how it was going to turn out, there’s a chance it wouldn’t have been built. “I’d never build a second Port Sunlight,” Lever admitted to a colleague towards the end of his life. “It was a mistake, people who live and work together always quarrel.”

“Millers and malt distillers in a very large and extensive way” – unlocking east London history at the oldest and largest surviving tidal mill in the world

31 Jul

London in the first half of the 18th century was a city addicted to gin. Daniel Defoe noted in 1726 that “the Distillers have found out a way to hit the palate of the Poor, by their new fashion’d compound Waters called Geneva….” Ordinary people, added the writer and trader, “seem not to value the French-brandy as usual, and even not to desire it.” Indeed, around 10 million gallons were being distilled in the Capital each year in the 1730s, before being sold in some 7,000 dram shops.

Given that Londoners were estimated to have drunk a staggering 14 gallons of the spirit a year, it wasn’t surprising that the capital suffered from an epidemic of extreme drunkenness. The vice-chamberlain Lord Hervey summed up the problem: “Drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night.” And as I’ve written before, the artist William Hogarth capably captured the impact of the addictive spirit in his popular 1751 print, Gin Lane. In the picture, the poverty and despair of the community was attributed to the evils of gin.

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House Mill – the oldest and largest surviving tidal mill in the world (dating from 1776)

The worst of the so-called ‘Gin Craze’ died down within a few decades of the passing of the 1751 Gin Act which permitted distillers to sell only to licensed retailers (there was also an added incentive to get a license as the cost of obtaining these was reduced). Given, however, that people still drink the spirit today (G&Ts are of course very popular) it’s clear it it didn’t completely die out.

While I’ve toured working distilleries before (and looked at the outside of surviving 18th century buildings used for performing this function), it seems some have forgotten about the sourcing of essential raw ingredients for this process. Gin could not have been produced without milled grain.

Jenever (what Defoe called Geneva) was the Dutch word for juniper, the berries of which were used to produce the lethal spirit which brought debauchery to the streets of London. Shortened to ‘gin’, troops returning from wars in the Netherlands brought the drink to our shores. While it’s been claimed that it was the favourite tipple of William III, the Dutch king of England, it was when it was taken downmarket (following the prohibition of French brandy in 1735) that it made an important imprint in everyday London culture.

In east London, Peter Lefevre bought Three Mills in 1727 and, in partnership with Daniel Bisson and others established a successful gin distilling business. It was passed down through the generations of some of the owners and they described themselves as “millers and malt distillers in a very large and extensive way.” The operations expanded across this man made island, which had been created by Cistercian monks in the 11th century when a mill was first operated at the site. Today, Three Mills can be found at the back of a Tesco car park in Bow in the shadow of both modern apartments and derelict industrial buildings.

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Although there were certainly mills at the time of the Gin Craze and thus fuelling the distilleries that brought debauchery, the oldest surviving structure is from 1776 (remember that the 1751 Gin Act was the beginning of the end of excessive consumption of the spirit). The House Mill, so-called because it was located between homes of the miller and brewers, is remarkable nonetheless in that it’s the oldest standing tidal mill in the country.

Built by Daniel Bisson Senior, the fine Georgian brick façade is deceiving in that it hides a timber frame structure. Today, it is of course no longer an operating mill (it closed for the last time in 1941) but following extensive renovation is now open to the public. Visitors can climb through this building, which retains many original features such as wooden doors, beams and mill stones, and uncover the milling process with a guide.

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Grain was brought to the mill from farms as far afield as Suffolk by barge or cart (lines of granite slabs denote two-hundred-year-old tramways which are Grade II listed). Sacks would then have been hoisted using water power to the top floor of the building. It was then stored in compartments on the third floor before, thanks to gravity, passing through wooden or canvas shoots to move to the second floor for cleaning. The process then continued as the grain moved to the first floor where it passed through millstones.

On the ground floor, hidden away behind large wooden doors, are the water wheels which were powered by the tide going out. Water stored at high tide could be released when the tide was low, providing a constant power through the day. It was on this level that ground grain fell it to sacks, ready for transportation to the distillery. The whole House Mill operation employed 15 people on each shift.

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Water wheel at House Mill

What’s remarkable is the history on the site goes back much further than the 18th century. The Domesday Survey of 1086 notes there were eight tidal watermills (“eight Mills of Hame” – Hame being the name then for Newham) on the River Lea and branches. These were identified by names such as Pudding Mill, Waterworks Mill and, of course, Three Mills which was set-up by the Cistercian monks from the nearby Abbey of St. Mary Stratford Langthorne (today near Abbey Road DLR stop and near where remains of the monastery have been found).

Following a move by Edward III to expand commercial operations in the 14th century in the River Lea area and the subsequent passing of a 1571 Act to improve navigation, by 1588 there were said to be two water mills on the Three Mills island. Expansion continued at the site, with the Clock Mill rebuilt in 1817 (but retaining a 1750s clock tower) replacing a timber-built, weather-boarded mill. The building (which ceased to function as a mill in 1952) survives but is no longer open to the public – it forms part of the 20-acre 3 Mills film and television studios development. There was also once a third mill – a windmill – on the site which survived until around 1840.

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Clock Mill – now part of a 20 acre film and TV studio development

The home on the left of House Mill was completely wiped out by a bomb during the Second World War. The building on the right (once the miller’s house) was also badly damaged and only the façade remained; the visitors’ centre with a fine outside riverside terrace overlooking an expanse of green space is completely new and boasts a friendly café run by volunteers. Rooms in this modern structure are also let out to community groups providing valuable finances for the River Lea Tidal Mill trust which owns the site.

Renovation work continues at House Mill with the intension that one day the original 18th century water wheels will be turning again and visitors can be provided with milling demonstrations. But perhaps the most exciting aspect is that they will be used to generate hydro-electricity and sold to the National Grid, potentially generating £20,000 in funds for the charity each year. The old and the new are creating a bright future for east London while at the same time helping to preserve our rich industrial past.

“Paradise for the naturalist and geologist, and we who live in it and know it” –Yorkshire Dales National Park remains a beautiful place to visit 60 years on from creation

24 Jul

When campaigners were fighting for the Yorkshire Dales to become a National Park 60 years’ ago, not all were supportive. “National Parks are not greatly desired,” blasted a clerk in the North Riding. “It is a scheme of fantasies, idealists and those out of touch with life in the countryside.” Objectors believed that “hordes” of urbanites would ruin the landscape, by dropping litter, making noise, scaring animals and damaging walls.

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Looking at Pen-y-Ghent from near Horton in Ribblesdale

Fortunately however the inspector of the public enquiry considering the National Park proposal had a different, more positive view and recommended that the government accept the application. In November 1954 the Yorkshire Dales’ new status became a reality. Campaigner Alan Raistrick welcomed in the new National Park: “It offers all that we want, country for the walkers, ranging from the wildest fell tops to the pleasant riverside walks of the lower dales. It is a paradise for the naturalist and geologist, and we who live in it and know it, whatever his country taste, can find within its bounds.”

As we move towards the National Park’s Diamond anniversary in November, the factors that made the Yorkshire Dales an attractive place to visit back in 1954 still hold true today. The area features some of the most limestone scenery in Britain. It is a walkers’ paradise, particularly in what is sometimes called the Three Peaks district, the hilly landscape encompassing the mountains of Pen-Y-Gent, Whernside and Ingleborough. Many hikers take in all three climbs as part of a 12 hour, 25 mile challenge. Others enjoy shorter walks in the rolling countryside or go up just one of the mountains.

My most recent walk in the Yorkshire Dales took in a scenic stretch of the Pennine Way from Malham to Hawes. The first day of my hike (in which I went the 14 and a half miles to Horton in Ribblesdale) got off to a good start, with the curving amphitheatre shaped cliff formation of limestone rock that is Malham Cove and the later scramble up Pen-Y-Ghent. Having been fortunate to visit the Yorkshire Dales on numerous occasions in the past (including twice successfully completing the Three Peaks challenge), I have walked these parts before, but to me it always seems like I am conquering them afresh. Alfred Wainwright, the great fellwalker and guidebook author, described the route around Malham as “the best walking territory so far encountered along the Pennine way” and the descent to Horton in Ribblesdale as ‘”very, very good.” Few who have walked in this area would disagree.


Malham Cove

While the second day of my walk, a leg 14 miles from Horton, wasn’t quite as hilly and challenging, it was still pretty special. Arriving in Hawes, was fantastic – just like villages should be, with a bustling street full of shops (that aren’t just made up of chain stores) and pleasant places to grab a cup of tea. As it was a linear walk and we needed to get back to Malham to retrieve our cars, we took a ride on Settle to Carlisle railway, which passes through awe-inspiring aqueducts as equally impressive natural landscapes. It is surely Britain’s most scenic line.

Walking the rugged hills of the Yorkshire Dales is fantastic, but for me the stone-built villages set in the ‘dales’ (valleys) themselves have just as much – if not more – character. Malham, where I started my recent walk, is one of my favourites, with two friendly pubs serving a good range of ales and tasty food, plus an information centre where walks can get all the maps and books they need to plan good routes. We stayed in Malham Youth Hostel, which opened in 1938 and was the first purpose-built youth hostel in Yorkshire. As with other spots in the movement, it was opened to enable people to enjoy the Dales, regardless of their backgrounds and budgets (today the £29 per night fee for a twin room is still excellent value when compared against some pubs and hotel tariffs in the area).

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Horton doesn’t have as much charm as Malham or Hawes but given that it the official starting point for the Three Peaks challenge it doesn’t usually have a problem attracting visitors. In fact on all my previous trips I’ve only been able to get a spot in the bunk barn or campsite (on one occasion it was so busy that we needed to camp in a car park). Visiting mid-week this time, when the village was virtually deserted, meant I was able to get a comfortable room above the Golden Lion pub (a former coaching inn that is believed to date back to the 16th century). We had a meal and ales down the road at the Crown Hotel, a place so busy in the weekends during the summer that you can barely get through the door, let alone find a table. As it was quieter, a proper group conversation developed in the cosy lounge bar, where we debated the best walking routes with fellow hikers while locals popped in to pick-up their take away fish and chip meals.

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Golden Lion Hotel in Horton in Ribblesdale

Back in 1835 William Wordsworth said in his Guide to the Lakes that the Lake District should be the “sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest to perceive and a heart to enjoy.” In the end, the first National Park was in the United States (Yellowstone, in 1870) but soon the quest to make open spaces accessible to all spread to Britain. It was the height of the industrial revolution and social reformers felt that the working classes should have access to clean, fresh air in expansive countryside. Following the passing of the National Parks and Access to Countryside Act of 1949, 15 National Parks were created in Britain over the six decades that followed (the Peak District and Lake District coming in 1951, before the Yorkshire Dales appeared on the scene in 1954).

The Bill that had ultimately led to the foundation of the National Park reality in Britain had two core purposes: “to conserve and conserve and enhance their natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage” and “to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of their special qualities.” And visiting the Yorkshire Dales, 60 years on from its creation, those qualities stand true today. It is the perfect place to get away from everything and enjoy beautiful, open countryside. Rather than destroying the Dales, as that clerk had predicted back in 1954, the eight million visitors that come every year are vital for the safeguarding the rural economy by providing tourism jobs and a valuable sources of income for businesses.


Malham Tarn

The rise and fall of the Priory of Clerkenwell: from religious institution to pub visited by Dickens

17 Jul

St John’s Gate, a red-brick structure faced with ragstone near the centre of Clerkenwell, north London, has had a number of interesting uses over the past 500 years. In the early 18th century it housed a coffee shop, run the father of William Hogarth, the artist. Latin was reputably the only language that customers and staff were allowed to speak. Then it was a the house and printing works of Edward Cave, who founded the Gentleman’s Magazine and employed Dr Samuel Johnson to write reports. Later still, it was home to a pub, the Old Jerusalem Tavern and was visited by Charles Dickens.

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St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell, (built 1504)

The gatehouse was originally built, in 1504, as the southern entrance to the Priory of Clerkenwell, a large religious complex forming the English home of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. As I wrote last week, the organisation founded of a hospital to care for sick Christian pilgrims in 11th century Jerusalem who had travelled there on the Crusades. But given the Priory of Clerkenwell was set up in 1144 and closed in 1540 as part of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, St John’s Gate was built relatively late on in the site’s life as a religious institution. Now it acts as the entrance and shop for the museum charting the history of the Order – through various artefacts collected by the Order since its foundation – and St John Ambulance.

Today, the Crypt in the otherwise more modern Priory Church is the only surviving part of the original 12th century structure (and is indeed one of just a few remaining fragments of Norman London fabric). Descending the narrow flight of stairs to these rooms is very atmospheric, aided by the use of soft lighting. In the north chapel, visitors can see the skeletal effigy from the tomb of William Weston, Prior of England in 1540 when Henry VIII’s Dissolution Act went through parliament. But unlike those in other religious institutions he was not pensioned off as he is said to have had a heart attack and died on the very day that the legislation was passed. There are a number of other interesting artefacts from the Order’s history in this space, including a tomb sculpture portraying a knight in full armour and a rescued Norman font that for a number of years was used as a cattle trough in Wiltshire.

The outline of the original round 12th century nave can be seen marked out in white cobbles in St John’s Square, just in front of The Modern Pantry. Most of the church structure seen today was built in the 16th century, with much modification in the years that followed. Unfortunately however it was badly damaged by the Blitz in 1941 and so a new façade and porch needed to be added in 1960. Inside, banners on the north wall represent establishments of the Order around the world, which stretch as far afield as South Africa and Australia. Paintings on the wall are mainly of the Knights of Malta and were donated by Sir Victor Houlton, one time Governor of Malta.

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Priory Church, Order of St John, Clerkenwell


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Inside Priory Church

But, when it was a functioning Priory, the church was just one part of this busy religious complex, with dormitories, two large halls, a refectory, buttery, counting house and kitchens, plus land for growing fruit and vegetables and space for keeping animals. Accounts reveal that in 1338 there 75 people in total living at the site, including a Prior of England and a commander, the latter overseeing the smooth functioning of the estate.

Like other religious institutions in England, it was heavily damaged during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, with a fire reported to have burned for seven days and nights. The Prior of England, Robert Hales, who lived at the Priory was responsible for the Poll Tax, hence the anger expressed by the rebels. But the complex was re-built and by the early 16th century the Prior who had completed the work was described as “He made of it a palace.”

Following Dissolution, the old Priory became a storehouse used by Henry VIII and in the late 16th century part of the complex was the home of the official office responsible for providing performance licenses for plays from Shakespeare and his contemporaries. St John’s Gate was, as has already been discussed, used at various times as a coffee shop, printers and pub. Clerkenwell has changed enormously in the years following Dissolution, with much of the land belonging to the old Priory being built on and used by businesses and homes. The Priory church itself became a second parish church for Clerkenwell, before being passed back to the Order of St John when the area’s population fell in the 1930s.

The Order still survives and has its international headquarters in Rome, its home since the Knights were kicked out of Malta by Napolean in 1798 (see my blog last week for more details). In England, the modern Order of St John was given a Royal Charter in 1888 by Queen Victoria, recognising the effort that had gone into setting up St John Ambulance in 1877. That charity, which continues the work began in industrial Britain in providing first aid training services to the public, today has its UK headquarters next to the museum. The Order’s church is still used, including for inauguration services for new members, and can be visited on a guided tour. Weddings and other functions regularly make use of the splendidly lavish rooms connected to St John’s Gate, such as the late Gothic-style Chapter House, with drinks and canapes also served in the peaceful setting of the recently renovated Cloister Garden.

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Coloured cobbles showing line of original Priory Church

My year following in the footsteps of the Knights of St John – from Clerkenwell to Jerusalem (via Rhodes and Malta)

10 Jul

Head out to the theatre, a sports match or even a village fete and chances are that lurking in the background will be a dedicated band of volunteers ready to leap into action if a member of public falls ill. For the most part they’ll be seen dancing along to show songs, cheering on their team or, when the British summer permits, basking in the sun and getting a tan. But when the occasion calls, the volunteers from St John Ambulance – who can range in age from teenagers to pensioners – make use of their first aid skills, and with their quick thinking could mean the difference between life and death until full medical help arrives.

Like many British institutions, the charity was founded in the 19th century during a period of rapid industrialisation. Workplaces could be dangerous places, but when workers had accidents there was generally little in the way of medical help available for them. One group decided to do something to help and in 1877 set up St John Ambulance, providing classes across the country for training ordinary people in first aid so that accident victims could be treated quickly. Some ten years later William Church Brasier, a bookseller from Margate, gave training for people to deliver rapid treatment at public events.

But the history of the charity goes much further back than the Victorian era; it originates from the foundation of a hospital to care for sick Christian pilgrims in 11th century Jerusalem. The organisation that administered the institution – it would become known as the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (and also known as the Knights Hospitallers) – wouldn’t however remain in the Middle East forever. And over the last year or so, I’ve found myself (somewhat unintentionally) following in the Knights’ footsteps as they moved their headquarters from the Holy Land to the Greek island of Rhodes and then Malta. The Order grew extremely powerful and at one time held over 17,000 estates across Europe and the Middle East.

My journey began last year when I went to the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell, north London, for the first time. It was here that a Priory was set up in the 1140s as the English headquarters for the organisation. While the majority of the site has been sold off for building projects over the years, part of the original Priory Church of St John (a marvellous 12th century Crypt) survives. The actual museum is partly housed in St John’s Gate which dates from 1504, just a few decades before the institution was closed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and was the southern entrance to what was once a vast religious complex.

Jerusalem has seen many changes in power over the last thousand years, but I was still able to visit the Church of St John the Baptist, partly hidden from view by homes, in the Christian Quarter of the old city. It was here that by monks, under the guidance of Brother Gerard, had established a hospital, using the walls of an earlier church, to care for pilgrims who had travelled to the Holy Land on the Crusades. Knights wounded in the siege of Jerusalem in 1099 were cared for in this building and, in the years that followed, the hospital was given donations of land and money to support its work looking after pilgrims. But it cared for anyone, regardless of their faith or race and catered for different dietary requirements.

The fact that the order assumed a military, defensive role in the Holy Land, once the city was re-taken by the Christians in 1099 explains why they became known as the Knights Hospitallers. Its headquarters was at what is now called the Church of St John the Baptist until 1187, when Jerusalem was lost by the Christians to the Muslims under the leadership of Saladin. The building itself was abandoned before being reclaimed, probably by Greek Orthodox priests, although it was said in the 16th century to have been used as a mosque. But apart from the modern facade with its two small bell towers, the overall fabric of the Church of St John the Baptist has remained mostly unchanged for almost one thousand years.

When Jerusalem fell in 1187, the Order moved its headquarters to Acre in modern day Lebanon. That too was taken by the Muslim forces in 1291 and so the Knights retreated to lands in Cyprus for 18 years, running vast estates and sugar factories. But they were to have a much more lasting impact on Rhodes, which they held from 1309 until 1522 when Suleiman the Magnificent conquered the island for the Turks. During the 200 years the Knights held Rhodes they built fortresses, auberges and a hospital, evolving from running a land-based army to the medieval period’s most powerful naval fighting force. The strategic position of island was important as it meant they remained close to the Holy Land, a launch pad that they hoped would day help them re-conquer Jerusalem for the Christians.

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Street of the Knights, Rhodes

Traces of the Order’s contribution to the development of Rhodes can be best seen in the cobbled streets of the country’s capital, Rhodes Town. Medieval walls, built in the mid-14th century on a previous line, and re-constructed after an infamous siege by the Ottomans in 1480, provide shelter for a fine harbour enclose old city which is now filled with restaurants and shops (plus some very good museums and galleries) frequented by tourists. The 15th century Grand Master’s Palace, which was partly destroyed by an ammunition explosion but was later re-stored as a holiday residence for the King of Italy, stands at the top of the most important streets during the Order’s occupation of the island; the Street of the Knights. Here the Knights had their inns or lodgings, each representing the seven countries or tongues that they came from (most of the Knights were French, providing considerable influence on the architecture of Rhodes).

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Defensive walls, Rhodes Town

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Fortified harbour, Rhodes Town

Malta, which they held a little longer than Rhodes, from 1530 to 1798, became just as much their own fiefdom. Following an unsuccessful siege by Suleiman in 1565, the Knights built a new capital city, Valetta, named after their Grand Master, on an uninhabited island (a gilded bronze and silver portrait bust of Grand Master Jean de la Valette, c1565, is on display in the museum in Clerkenwell). The stakes had been high for the battle, with Queen Elizabeth I declaring: “If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what follow to the rest of Christendom.” For Suleiman it remained an important target, with advisers telling him: “So long as Malta remains in the hands of the Knights, so long will every relief from Constantinople to Tripoli run the danger of being taken or destroyed – this cursed rock is like a barrier interposed between your possessions.” But he was of course never successful in this.

The founder of Valetta decreed that it should be “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”. Many would agree that much of the elegance of this compact city, surrounded by water on three sides, remains today. Valetta is packed with history, to the extent that when Unesco named it a world Heritage Site it suggested that it is “one of the most concentrated historic areas of the world”. It was the first planned city in Europe, designed with straight streets to allow circulating sea breezes to keep the people cool. Impressive fortifications (chiefly to protect against the threat from the Turks) were completed in just five years and are still very much a feature of Valetta today.


Sacra Infermeria, Valetta, Malta

Aside from the Grand Master’s Palace (now the seat of Malta’s parliament and residence of Malta’s president), perhaps one of the most impressive buildings that can be visited from the era of the Knights is the Sacra Infermeria, a vast 16th century hospital constructed to cater for up to 300 patients at a time. Surgeons were reputed to have performed advanced operations alongside more routine amputations and the treatment of other wounds. The main, long hall and surrounding rooms are still used today for a host of functions (when I visited staff were setting up for the Miss Malta final) and guided tours are offered.

Napoleon was determined to take Malta and, shortly before succeeding in 1798, said: “We (the French) shall be masters of the Mediterranean.” When the island was lost, the Knights were homeless. Eventually the Pope provide some land for them in Rome, where the Order retains its headquarters to this day. But since 1798 the Knights have had no military role, focusing instead on charitable and humanitarian activities in more than 40 countries around the world. The Order, which today has about 20,000 members around the world, runs an eye hospital in Jerusalem that is open to all, and has outreach clinics in Gaza, Hebron and Anabta. And of course it is behind the highly successful St John Ambulance.

Next Thursday: I continue to chart the fascinating history of the Knights of St John by revealing the rise and fall of the Priory of Clerkenwell


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