Georgian squares and bathing machines: tracing the birth of the English seaside at Margate

30 Oct

Intersected by a main road and blighted by an open air car park, Cecil Square today seems little more than a busy traffic hub. While there are clearly some interesting heritage buildings on one side, the eye is drawn to the ghastly post war concrete library structure on another other. If they aren’t here to borrow a book, most people probably just pass on by.

But this little corner of Margate deserves further exploration as Cecil Square was the first planned square to be built in a seaside resort. Landowners and businessmen collaborated in 1769 on a scale and form that had previously only occurred in London. It was a turning point for Margate and a significant milestone in the development of the English seaside resort for the country as a whole.

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Cecil Square

While visitors had been coming to the town for some time, entertainment and other amenities had for many years been limited. Cecil Square, which moved development away from the historic high street for the first time, set to change that with the building of large houses, new shops, Assembly Rooms and a circulating library. This gave those visiting from the capital a home away from home.  2014-10-19 11.12.29

It ushered in a construction boom in the town. Following Cecil Square came nearby Hawley Square in the 1770s and 1780s which included a library (one of the first and best to be built in a seaside resort) and theatre (the still operating Theatre Royal), as well as family homes and boarding houses. Unlike its predecessor, Hawley Square is today a pleasant place to while away time as it was laid out with gardens in the centre.

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Hawley Square

New Georgian terraces also sprung up on a patch work of streets by the coast, many of which remain standing, although are sadly not all in the best of conditions. The properties’ appearances would have seemed familiar to many Londoners in that from looking at the designs you could easily think you were in Islington. And Edward Hasted wrote in 1810 that Ramsgate: “was so well adapted to bathing, being an entire level and covered with the finest sand, which extends for several miles on either side of the harbour…”

But it wasn’t just affluent visitors who came to Margate in the 18th century. The Royal Sea Bathing Hospital was opened in 1796 to treat poor people suffering from a scrofula (a form of tuberculosis) by a philanthropic London doctor, Dr John Coakley Lettsom.

The vast complex, lying about ten minutes walk from the Margate’s old town and currently looking in a sorry state as the disused buildings await conversion into luxury apartments, grew rapidly in the 19th century. They were in use until 1996, having being amalgamated into the NHS at its formation in 1948. Until 1910 bathing in water was the main means of curing patients.

It had been the perceived therapeutic properties of sea water bathing in the 18th century that had truly put Margate on the map in the first place. Physicians saw immersion in baths as a cure for a range of diseases including rheumatism, rickets, leprosy and scurvy. Given that Margate was less than a day’s carriage ride from London – and that it could also be reached by boat on the Thames – visitors started to arrive in droves, hence the need to expand facilities.

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Royal Sea Bathing Hospital

Margate was the first costal town to in the 1730s be able to boast a purpose-built sea water bath. And it also pioneered the bathing machine – a mobile changing room – that took bathers right out to sea, often with a ‘guide’. Zechariah Brazier even invented a ‘modesty hood’ which provided even more privacy, consisting of a canopy which could be lowered by the driver. They were described in 1805 as:

“four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, and having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy.”

Such was the demand for bathing machines that waiting rooms were created on the High Street. Bathers could read newspapers, drink sea water and be entertained with music as they waited for their ride.

While Margate was initially predominantly a place for the upper classes, it soon became enjoyed by wider tranches of society. The town was in fact the first resort to be popularised by middle and lower middle class holiday makers visiting from London. George Keate described the social diversity that existed in Margate from as early as the 1760s:

“The decent tradesman slips from town for his half crown, and strolls up and down the Parade as much at ease as he treads his own shop. His wife, who perhaps never eloped so far from the metropolis before, stares with wonder at the many new objects which surround her… The farmer’s rosy-cheeked daughter crosses the island on her pillion, impatient to peek at the London females…. The Londoner views with a disdainful surprise, the awkward straw hat, and exposed ruddy countenance of the rustic nymph; who in turn scrutinizes the inexplicable coiffure of her criticiser, unable to conceive what can have befallen the features of a face of which the nose is the only visible sign.”

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Improvements in transport were of course instrumental in making Margate accessible for the masses. Visitors could get cheap rides on hoys, single-masted ships steamers that had initially carried goods such as coal, timber and grain but over time had focused on passenger services. And then in 1846 the first railway arrived in Margate providing another option for getting to the town.

Over the course of the 19th century Margate grew dramatically beyond its historic centre, expanding westwards to create Westbrook and eastwards to Cliftonville, the latter home to many of the first class enjoyed by holiday makers.

Today, Walpole Bay Hotel (built 1914) is the only one that survives in that area. Indeed most hotels have disappeared in Margate since the decline that set in from the 1960s. In recent years surviving b&bs are most likely to have found their primary customers to be recovering drug users or alcoholics. Many other hotels have been turned into retirement flats.

But things are starting to look up for Margate. The opening of the Turner Contemporary gallery has brought a much needed boost for the town and complements an already thriving artistic quarter in the old town. It’s now a pleasant place to with lots of independent coffee shops. Dreamland, with the oldest roller coaster in Britain, is due to re-open next year as the “world’s first heritage amusement park” with rides and other attractions. Even Premier Inn is being extended.

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Mission in an East End music hall: Wilton’s and Methodism in Whitechapel

23 Oct

You don’t need to look far to find vivid accounts of the poor living conditions that many experienced in London’s East End in the 19th century. So-called social explorers flocked from the more salubrious areas of the capital – and even overseas – to witness and report on the destitution. Henry Mayhew wrote in London Labour and the London Poor (1851) that:

“roads were unmade, often mere alleys, houses small and without foundations, subdivided and often around unpaved courts. An almost total lack of drainage and sewerage was made worse by the ponds formed by the excavation of brickearth. Pigs and cows in back yards, noxious trades like boiling tripe, melting tallow, or preparing cat’s meat, and slaughter houses, dustheaps, and ‘lakes of purefying night soil’ added to the filth.”

While it is of course debatable as to whether these accounts – which I’ve explored in detail in other blogs in recent months – were exaggerated, it is impossible to deny that many in the East End were living on the bread line. Rapid industrialisation, the expansion of the docks and clearance of slums for the construction of the railways brought considerable overcrowding and insanitary living conditions.

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But while it may seem the poorest in the East End were ignored by the outside world, there were some individuals and organisations that did offer help. They were usually Christian organisations who saw delivering aid as part of a much wider strategy of bringing salvation to the masses.

The Wesleyan Methodists, who opened up a mission at St George’s Church in Cable Street in 1885, were just one such group that was active in the East End in late Victorian times. In 1888 they bought Wilton’s Music Hall, which as I wrote last week had become vacant when tastes changed and audiences moved to enjoy entertainment in other areas of the city, calling it ‘Mahogany Bar Mission’.

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Mahogany Bar was one of the names for the pub attached to the music hall (which was also called the Prince of Denmark). Methodists had prayed that the drinking establishment and adjoining entertainment venue would be closed down, such was some Christians’ belief of lewd behaviour going on inside. It has been touted that in its latter years – a decade or so after John Wilton left – nude female wrestling took place inside (they were “singing songs of blasphemous indecency”).

A commemorative postcard was produced telling the story of how the Mahogany Bar Mission was set-up. It described what Mr and Mrs Reginald Radcliffe and Mrs Miss Macpherson experienced when they passed through Grace’s Alley:

“The dreadful noise and sounds that came from the hall startled them. They paused to listen and were so impressed that they paid the admission fee and went in to see what really could be going on. The sights on the stage and the condition of things were so awful that they fell on their knees in the centre of the hall, and in view of the onlookers and stage prayed that God would break the power of the devil in the place, and bring the premises into use of Christian people.”

Methodists were clearly impressed with their new auditorium, as George Leask noted in his 1909 publication, The Romance of the East London: “I expected to see… a low-ceiled, narrow, frowsy room…. I certainly did not anticipate the vision which burst upon me when my friend triumphantly ushered me into the hall.”

It became a thriving community venue with a youth club, a place where Bible stories were told to children, films were shown and conferences held – and of course a place for Sunday church services. And leaders at Mahogany Bar Mission campaigned for better rights for women, particularly those caught up in prostitution, improved conditions for workers in sweatshops and stricter licensing of pubs.

Many of those living in Whitechapel, the area surrounding the Mahogany Bar Mission, were affected by the 1889 dockers’ strike. Unions meetings were held by at the church and soup was handed out to many workers. John Jameson, the first minister, noted: “Here we are in the thick of it. This morning it was piteous to see the people. Some of them had had no food for three days.”

But after the Second World War the mission was in decline and in 1957 the building was sold to Coppermill Rag Warehouse. As I wrote last week, Wilton’s then faced a very uncertain period as London County Council put forward plans to redevelop the area. Thanks to a tireless campaign the Victorian structure was saved and is now a thriving arts venue. Yet given that it was designers by church builders, visitors can feel they are still entering a non-conformist chapel.

Wilton’s Got Talent: Victorian variety and the restoration of a treasured music hall

16 Oct

It was “the handsomest pleasure room in the district” noted the Daily News in 1864. Wilton’s Music Hall, nestled down an unassuming alley way behind Cable Street in London’s East End, was in Victorian times a popular variety venue enjoyed by Whitechapel locals and international sailors visiting the nearby Port of London. The stars of the day – arguably the first celebrities – entertained audiences with singing, dancing, magic and aerial acrobatics, while punters wondered in and out of the hall with food, drink and tobacco from the adjoining pub.

“We found a good audience at half-past seven, the time of the entertainments commencing, which increased to a perfect ‘overflow’ before we left the hall; and the concert was certainly of sufficient excellence warrant this large attendance,” reported the East London Observer in 1858. “The evening’s entertainment opened with some spirited choruses…. Miss Smithson who is the very singer for this audience—fresh, gay, and piquant, sang two character songs in a most effective manner; and Mr. Harry Castor gave a forcible and dramatic rendering of another old favourite – ‘Bonnie Dundee,’ over which the audience became even more enthusiastic than over the preceding ones.”

Next up was Mr. T. Glen, “a comic vocalist of provincial reputation” who made his first appearance “in a humorous version of Shakespeare’s ‘Seven ages of man’ in which he had to depict the ‘many parts’ from the infant to the lean and the slippered pantaloon…. Possessing considerable power of facial expression, and a large amount of dramatic ability, he made each character tell upon his audience; but it appeared if no possible quantity of laughter could satisfy them, for when he withdrew there was a general recall, in obedience to which he returned and sang an ‘antidiluvian buffalo song,’…”

Later came Herr Susman who “has developed his peculiar talent to something very like perfection.” Without the use of any musical instrument, the artist “whistles in exact imitation of all the varieties of singing birds—nightingale, skylark, thrush, canary, linnet, chaffinch, and many others; and gives also equally clever imitations of the donkey, pig, and young colt. The absolute perfection to which Herr Susman has attained in whistling all these sounds, and the compass of notes through which lie runs would scarcely credited by anyone who had not heard him….” And these acts were only a selection of the evening’s entertainment. All in all, judging by the variety on offer it must have been likely watching a live version of Britain’s Got Talent.

I’m writing this piece in the past tense which is slightly misleading as Wilton’s 19th century structure is very much still standing. It’s one of the few surviving music halls in Britain – the nation’s oldest surviving one in fact – and continues to put on a variety of productions following its re-opening to the public in 1997 (although perhaps not as raucous as some performances in the 19th century).

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Venturing into the hall’s Mahogany Bar today, it’s clear the clientele has changed considerably from Victorian times. When I visited at the weekend drinkers were well behaved, had scrubbed up well and were otherwise very middle class. Back then the punters were working class, but they received just as good a level of service as the Theatrical Journal reported in 1859:

“Great attention is paid to visitors, and every information is given to at the refreshment bar by Mrs Wilton, who is a perfect lady in her manners, and who is very attentive to her own sex. The refreshments are of the best kinds, and are very reasonable.”

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In keeping with the music hall tradition of the 19th century, Wilton’s grew out of a pub. The Prince of Demark, a popular sailor’s drinking establishment, occupied one of the five 18th century houses on Grace’s Alley that now form the venue’s entrance halls and other areas that are being renovated for use by the public.

Musical hall building started in northern industrial towns from the 1840s and within a decade they had reached London (there were some 300 establishments in the capital in 1866). A law introduced in 1843 which allowed concert rooms attached to drinking establishments to be licensed for musical entertainment was instrumental in the growth of such venues.

John Wilton – the son of a butcher from Bath – started building Wilton’s behind the Prince of Denmark pub (also known in the Mahogany Bar) in 1859. The two storey hall, built to a design that’s not dissimilar to that of a non-conformist chapel with a horse-shoe balcony has changed little structurally over the years even though it was gutted by fire in 1877 and had to be extensively refurbished. In fact, the ‘platform’ (the music hall’s stage, with a dressing room underneath) dates from the time when the vital renovations took place.

Music halls across Britain often became known as places of debauchery and Wilton’s had its fair share of problems. Rowdy sailors were seated with their ‘acquaintances’ (quite probably prostitutes) well away from more the better behaved audience (couples) downstairs. Music halls could, and did, bring down areas and Wilton’s was no exception – there are claims, for example, that it contributed to the flight of wealthy residents from a nearby Georgian square (although the opening of nearby St Katharine’s Dock and the railway would also have helped destroying what had previously been a ‘salubrious suburb’).

But according to contemporary accounts the music hall’s owner did go out of his way to operate an orderly business. Wilton, it was noted, did this remarkably so for “an establishment so difficult to manage.” He had “two policemen-looking men on the door” to keep out the riff-raff and ensure that ‘young ladies without escort’ that they needed to sit on the balcony upstairs.

Wilton saw that over time tastes were beginning to change. Better public transport meant ordinary working people could travel into town to watch shows at bigger West End venues. Wilton left the East End in 1868 and went on to run a restaurant in Soho and the in-house catering provision at the Lyceum Theatre. As the historian Roy Porter has noted, “by 1900 pub-based music halls had been eclipsed by gorgeous variety palaces, with proscenium-arched stages and fixed seats in rows.”

While others followed in Wilton’s footsteps in Whitechapel, the venue would only last another 12 years – a period that saw the devastating 1877 fire which destroyed most of the interiors – as a music hall. The building was then bought by the Wesleyan Methodists in 1888 who called it ‘The Mahogany Bar Mission’.

Operating as a venue for church services and community facility until well after the Second World War, the Wilton’s building was eventually turned into a store following its sale to the Coppermill Rag Warehouse in 1957.  And it was dangerously close to being knocked down on a number of occasions in the name of progress (London County Council announced dramatic plans in 1964 to redevelop the entire area, for example). There was however a highly vocal campaign that eventually saw Wilton’s receive Grade-II listed status in 1971.

But despite millions of pounds spent renovating the building over the last four decades, visitors still won’t find music hall interiors reminiscent of Wilton’s glory days. While trustees – the venue has been owned by a number of groups since the 1970s and is now under the stewardship of the Wilton’s Music Hall Trust – have worked hard to maintain its fabric (including repairing its leaking roof), they haven’t brought it back to its exact 1859 appearance. Right now Wilton’s is covered in scaffolding. The organisation received a grant from the Heritage Lottery foundation last year to complete repairs to the five Georgian houses that the music hall was originally built behind.

In many ways this approach makes sense. While it would be tempting to create a music hall museum piece, Wilton’s must also acknowledge the building’s history from 1888 onwards. It was used by the Methodist movement for far longer than it operated as a musical entertainment venue. That history is no less important than the period when it was a music hall.

And Wilton’s needs to make sure it remains a place that can be used – and is relevant to – modern audiences. When it was a music hall it would have been configured with tables, chairs and benches. The current set-up – without any fixed furniture – lends the venue to a much wider range of uses, including comedy nights and ping pong tournaments, as well as traditional music and theatre productions. Finding as many ways as possible to generate revenue will be vital for keeping such venues afloat and allowing them to thrive.

Next Thursday on Mark Gee looks at how Wilton’s became a centre for Methodism in the East End

Finsbury Park emerges from the shadows – but ghosts of radical preachers and slum housing lingers on

9 Oct 2014-04-13 16.29.09

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon and Finsbury Park is alive with the infectious sound of drumming. More than 25 people are sitting in a circle holding their instruments and jamming along to the lively rhythms. The session in front of Finsbury Park Art Club, on the Seven Sisters Road side of this wonderful 110-acre green space in north London opened in 1869, is boosted by a saxophonist and others dancing while playing percussion on a variety of shakers.

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Finsbury Park Art Club

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Nearby, at the Park Theatre in Clifton Crescent, the audience is pouring out of the auditorium of a matinee and into the adjoining trendy café and restaurant space. The arts centre, which opened in 2012, not only has a packed programme of plays and other live performances, but it’s also a nice place to meet friends and enjoy great coffee and tasty food. In neighbouring Morris Place, the John Jones Arts Building opened earlier this year with exhibition and gallery space, with a particular emphasis on supporting emerging artists.

For many, the idea of Finsbury Park becoming known as a centre for arts is something hard to contemplate. Indeed, when I first moved to north London several years ago and mentioned the name to friends, more often than not it was radical preaching they they associated with the place. Finsbury Park Mosque (now North London Central Mosque) gained notoriety in the 1990s for extremist Islamic teaching under the leadership of the infamous Islamist preacher Abu Hamza. Installed as Inman in 1996, he regularly held sermons in the open air in St Thomas’ Road and was said by one MI5 informer to run “an al-Qa’ida camp in the heart of London.”

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North London Central Mosque – formerly the infamous Finsbury Park mosque

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Grandly named Finsbury Park transport interchange

Hamza earlier this year gained a life sentence in the US for supporting and promoting terrorism. Countless young Muslim men, including the 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay and “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid participated in the mosque’s teaching. The Observer reported back in 2002 that Kalashnikov AK-47 training had taken place in the red-brick building.

But long before the arrival of Hamza, Finsbury Park – and Holloway in general – was a place that was held in low regard by the outside world. What had started off as a desirable area for lower middle class clerks and artisans wanting to escaping the central London fumes quickly grew into somewhere better known for its slums. Campbell Road, just a few minutes walk from the Tube and mainline train station was said by social reformer Charles Booth and others to be the “worst street in north London.” Campbell Bunk, as it was called, suffered from property speculators over-building in the area in the three decades from the 1860s and so properties were divided up to house labourers, navvies and others in the building trades.

Jerry White, the author of a book on Campbell Bunk, said that from 1880s to when the slum was cleared in the 1950s it had “a notorious reputation for violence, for breeding thieves and prostitutes, and for an enthusiastic disregard for law and order. A street where strangers never went and where police were afraid to go alone….” As families migrated to new properties further from the centre of London, rents were lowered – more so in Campbell Road than other places it seems – and “the very people poor who did not know where their next week’s rent – even their next Sunday dinner – was coming from” moved in. The local vicar said in the 1870s that “it was little better than an open sewer… People threw their slops and garbage out of the windows into the streets…” Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London (1902-3) provided a snapshot of the street in the early 20th century:

“A street fairly broad, with houses of three storeys, not ill-built, many being occupied as common lodging-houses; broken windows, dirty curtains, doors open, a litter of paper, old meat tins, heads of fish and stalks of vegetables. It is a street where thieves and prostitutes congregate. The thieves live in common lodging-houses, paying fourpence a night, and the prostitutes, generally two together, in a single furnished room, which they rent at four or five shillings a week. They are the lowest class of back-street prostitute, and an hour or two after midnight they may be seen returning home.”

Campbell Road is a name that no longer appears on maps and the area has been transformed in recent years, with pleasant looking council-looking apartment blocks built around courtyards and gardens. But the history of this place can never be wiped out, something White found looking through medical officers’ health reports, poor law records and police press cuttings – and from speaking to people who once lived there. The historian found people “street selling, making money from other people’s rubbish, ducking and diving – and others who lived for a part of their time outside the law.”

Fast-forward to the Sixties and Seventies – after Campbell Bunk had been demolished – and music fans flocked to Finsbury Park for the Rainbow Theatre (now occupied by the United Church of the Kingdom of God) for rock concerts. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd all played there before the last gig in 1981. It then lay empty for many years before the Pentecostal church bought it in the mid-1990s and restored the splendid foyer and auditorium to its former glory (it had been built as a magnificent cinema in the 1930s that could hold over 4,000 people).

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Natural habitats at Gillespie Park

But while Finsbury Park is a creative and pleasant place to explore these days, there is still more work to be done. Visitors arriving the station are greeted by dingy railway arches (which are set to be transformed through an art project). And there are some tatty post Second World War office buildings and rowdy pubs. Opposite the station is a sprawling, unsitely derelict pub. City North is currently a building site, but once complete it will have more than 300 apartments, plus shops and a cinema – it’s the biggest construction project in Islington borough since the Emirates stadium was built.

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Derelict pub opposite Finsbury Park station

Back at North London Central Mosque, the leadership changed long ago (in 2005), with extremist elements removed, and it is now seen as a community hub with inter-faith meetings and it has received awards from Islington council. “We take [young people] away from the street, from gangs, from drugs and from extremism, as well as creating an atmosphere where they can debate and play table tennis and snooker in a relaxed atmosphere,” Mohammed Kozbar, chairman of trustees at Finsbury Park mosque told the Independent newspaper earlier this year.

But despite the progress Kozbar admits the mosque still faces challenges. “We still receive some hate messages. One day there was a pig’s head placed outside the entrance, we received an envelope with white powder inside… we’ve had some attempts to drop fire-bombs here at the mosque.” And recently the mosque was back in the news when HSBC closed its bank account without, trustees say, explaining why. Hundreds protested at the decision outside the branch in Severn Sisters Road. Finsbury Park – and its mosque – is emerging from the shadows, but the transformation is not complete yet.

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Park theatre, Finsbury Park

How memories of Shoreditch’s Victorian furniture trade survives in its restaurants, bars, shops and cafes

2 Oct

Shoreditch is known today for its trendy bars, arty coffee shops and retro clothing stores, but it was once more famous for being the beating heart of England’s furniture trade. Wholesale warehouses lined Curtain Road, from Old Street to Great Eastern Street, while workshops and factories were sandwiched between tenement blocks, timber yards and public buildings in quieter side streets. Don’t expect to find traces of large-scale manufacturing operations in Shoreditch; it has been claimed that “the real assembly line ran through the streets” which countless small business all working together.

Different workshops and factories contributed different stages, with the streets and pavements often used for temporary storage of finished and part finished items. The Woodworker described how in 1929 the trade dominated Shoreditch and the wider East End: “At any time during the week from the purlieus of Hoxton, from Old Ford, Bethnal Green, and the byways of Shoreditch could be seen vans and weird piles of furniture in unpolished or skeleton forms, … frames piled to a dizzy height on one barrow, two or three telescope dining-tables on another.”


Loading doors of the former WA Hudson (furnishing brassfounders) workshop, Charlotte Street. Today the ground floor is occupied by a clothing shop

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Former showroom-warehouse on Curtain Road


Prior to the mid-19th century furniture making was largely centred on the West End and the City, offering bespoke designs to those that individuals that could afford to pay for the very best craftsmanship. But as the ready-made market grew, there was a movement to the East End, as manufacturers took advantage of cheaper rents and access to railway lines. The heyday for furniture trade in the area was from 1860 to 1945, when manufactured pieces were transported across Britain and were exported to imperial colonies as far afield as Australia and South Africa.

There was a variety of different pieces produced in the East End – from cabinets and dining tables to floor coverings and light shades. Rather than just being making cheap, mass produced items, qualities varied as well. The emergence of West End furniture emporia like Maples in the 19th century were important outlets for stock originating from Shoreditch. In reality, as the Cabinet and Upholstery Advertiser pointed out in 1877, the trade offered something for everyone: “What is the real character of East End furniture? Is it good, bad or indifferent? Now, we can make no more conclusive reply to this inquiry than to say, that East End furniture is anything to order.”

Many examples of tall, imposing Victorian show-room warehouses with plain brick frontages remain in Shoreditch, but rather than being occupied by furniture dealers they are now bars, cafes, shops, offices and design studies, Most of these surviving buildings date from 1870 to 1910 and can mainly be found in Curtain Road. Basements were typically used for the storage and packing of finished goods into crates. The upper three or so floors were then used as showrooms, where items were closely packed together and usually organised by type. Some feature mocked-up rooms so that “retailers could bring their friends to see such furnishings complete, even down to the books on the table.”

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Another former showroom-warehouse on Curtain Road, now a bar and restaurant

Most workshops, where different stages of the furniture production process took place, typically employed fewer than eight workers (only three or four such businesses employed more than 50 people in Shoreditch). These premises were typically found in side streets and weren’t as towering as the furniture show-room warehouses. And they weren’t always purpose-built; sometimes domestic houses were converted into commercial uses, with a hoist being added to help with the movement of furniture to the different floors. While many other clues of the furniture trade have disappeared over the years, these mechanisms remain, providing a fitting reminder of the past once the buildings have now found new uses.

Over time the Shoreditch furniture industry suffered a long slow decline before finally collapsing in the 1980s. In the first half of the 20th century new manufacturing districts, with state-of-the-art assembly lines, became established on the outskirts of London. World War Two was also particularly devastating with for Shoreditch with many buildings suffering bomb damage and in the aftermath it was largely the high-quality, lower-scale dealers than remained. Kirkham et al described the scene in 1987: “What is left of furniture making in the East End is only a shadow of what was once one of London’s most thriving and important manufacturing industries.”

The furniture trade may have long gone, but the surviving Victorian and Edwardian commercial buildings help preserve a sense of character and provide a fitting link with the past. As the City spills further eastwards and new buildings, often clad with excessive amounts of glass, this is so important.


Hoxton Square

Better together then…. Better together now…. Scotland and England are still perfect partners

16 Sep

Scotland in the late 18th century was one of poorest countries in Europe. Famine and emigration had reduced the nation’s population by 15%, but its leaders believed they had a rescue plan. Seeing the success that England had achieved from its colonies, Scotland sought to establish its very own in Panama in 1698.

But Darien – billed as New Caledonia – quickly fell into disarray and became little more than a humid, fever-ridden swamp. Most of the Scottish settlers that went out to Panama died and for the nation’s economy it was a disaster in that the project consumed nearly a quarter of its liquid capital.

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While England’s protectionist tariffs, which obstructed access to markets, was attributed by some to the collapse of Darien, Scotland’s leaders had little time for playing the blame game. With the financial outlook for the nation darkening by the month it was clear that drastic action would be needed. And so Scotland began formal talks about a union with England in April 1706.

For England’s part, joining with their neighbour in the north made sense as questions remained as to what would happen when Queen Anne passed away. Rather than endorsing a candidate from the Hanoverian dynasty as her successor, the Scots were determined to choose their own monarch. Could this mean the return of Catholic James II? The implications this would have for England’s security greatly worried Westminster given the launch pad for invasion it would provide for France, and other European countries, that opposed the Protestant cause.

By July 1706 agreement was reached on the 25 articles of the Treaty of the Union, providing the substance for the 1707 Act of Union. The English parliament endorsed it by 274 votes to 116 and Scottish parliament by 110 to 67. In the process of establishing the United Kingdom of Great Britain, the Edinburgh parliament was abolished and 45 Scottish MPs joined the 513 English and Welsh MPs in Westminster.

But while Scottish MPs may gave their support to the Union back in 1707, ordinary people were less supportive it seems and widespread protests reportedly broke out on the nation’s streets. Robert Burns also noted there was a hidden agenda in that a share of £20,000 was promised as a sweeter to politicians and others in Scotland (the “Parcel of Rogues”) to force through the legislation.

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Wonderful hiking in the rugged Cairngorms national park.

Security had been one of the key motives for the English for the Union, but in the short-term this was far from quiet. There were uprisings by Jacobites (supporters of James II) in Scotland in 1715 and 1745, and the reign of terror stretched down into the heart of England. The rebellion was only completely crushed at Culloden in 1746 – a battlefield on the outskirts of Inverness in the care of the National Trust for Scotland that I visited just a few weeks ago.

If the story had ended there, you could see why Scots would want to vote for independence in this week’s referendum. People took to the streets following the signing of the Union in 1707 to show disapproval that their voices hadn’t been heard. The reality of course is that much has happened in the last three centuries that has been of benefit for the Scottish nation.

While Scotland kept its own (Presbyterian) church and legal system, it benefited from free trade and access to the colonies. The nation was drawn right to the very heart of the British Empire with soldiers, traders, financiers, engineers, politicians and missionaries all standing to benefit from its riches. Today, the NHS and education systems are devolved giving Scottish people a say in their own affairs.

Scotland thrived in the Union. As Tristram Hunt, the historian and Labour MP wrote in a Sunday Times article (“Faster, higher, stronger together”) on the eve of the Commonwealth Games, Glasgow became the second city of the British Empire. Thanks to access to English imperial markets, the region grew rich on the sugar and tobacco trades, then later engineering – including the export of locomotives to the colonies – and shipbuilding.

“The Scots were the engineers, educators, explorers, doctors, spies and surgeons of empire,” wrote Hunt. “Several governors-general of India were Scottish and more than a quarter of the East India Company’s army officers were Scotsmen… Crucially, the Scots embraced a British identity through the medium of empire. If Great Britain’s primary identity was an imperial one, it allowed for much greater parity between the English and Scots as component nations of the colonial project.”

And it wasn’t just Glasgow that benefitted from the Union, as Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics noted. “There was little trade or industry in Edinburgh before the Union,” he wrote. Only “when the Scottish parliament was no longer assembled in it” did Edinburgh become “a city of some trade and industry.” And for the country as a whole he said “the middling and inferior ranks of people in Scotland gained a complete deliverance from the power of an aristocracy which had always before oppressed them.”

Britain may have lost its Empire, but Scotland still benefits from being part of – and would lose out if it was separated from – the United Kingdom. Jobs could be at risk, particularly in the financial services industry which employs some 200,000 people, if there was a yes vote and companies shift their headquarters south of the border, as has been suggested by a number of big companies. Scotland would also lose its voice on the world stage – and find foreign investment harder to attract – should it break away and lose access to 270 embassies and consulates around the world. Former prime minister John Major has summed up the voices of many by saying: “The UK would be weaker in every international body.”

It’s well documented the nation has a higher level of public spending that the rest of the UK (£11,381 in the UK vs £12,629 in Scotland, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies). With North Sea Oil running out, leaving the Union would be disastrous for Scotland and mean tax rises or cuts in public services. In recent days, supermarket bosses have said there would be a rise in food prices for Scottish people should there be a ‘yes’ vote. And Deutsche Bank, Europe’s biggest investment bank, said independence could result in the worst depression for Scotland since the 1930s.

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Signs point from John O’Groats to all over the world. Scotland lose its international appeal with a ‘yes’ vote.

But why as an Englishman should I care if Scotland decided to go it alone? For me, the answer is simple – we would have lost a unique part of our British identity. Just a few weeks ago on a 10 day road trip from Glasgow – via the Orkney Islands – to Inverness I saw how varied, beautiful and unique the nation’s landscapes are. From walking in the rugged Cairngorms national park to enjoying live traditional music in friendly cities like Inverness, there’s something special about Scotland.

Regular readers of my blog will know how much of a fan I am of many English cities, including London, Manchester and Bristol and rural beauty spots such as the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. Yet despite the diversity and attractions on offer here, losing Scotland would leave a deep hole that would be hard to fill. What would the Union Jack – and the Queen who rules over the United Kingdom – stand for without Scotland?

Just as we joined together to build a powerful British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we can once again work in partnership to create something that is more than a sum of its individual parts. Back then the trades included sugar and tobacco, today they are technology and financial services, but the same principles remain. Three hundred years ago, it was politicians that opted for – without consultation – for Union with England. Now it is the turn of the people to endorse that decision. We were better together then and are still better together now.

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Scottish whisky is shipped all over the world.

Pioneering intercity railway travel at the world’s first passenger station – visiting Liverpool Road, Manchester

11 Sep

“We went like a shot from a gun,” wrote an excited railway passenger in 1835. “No sooner did we come to a field than it was a mile behind us.” Charles Young was travelling on the pioneering Manchester to Liverpool line just five years after its opening and clearly the novelty of fast, intercity journeys had not yet worn off. Then again, speed was something the railway traded off, with the company’s secretary noting: “A saving of time is a saving of money…. the traveller will live double times.”

Within just a few months of opening in 1830, the railway was carrying 1,200 passengers a day. This is particularly remarkable given that stagecoaches had carried just 250 people each day before the line opened. Yes, the railway took business away from stagecoaches (and by 1835 only one daily stage coach service remained), but it also grew the market. Furthermore, it hadn’t been built primarily for passengers; the line was planned to ferry goods (including raw cotton and finished products) to and from the port of Liverpool.

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Liverpool Road station, the world’s first passenger railway station

Railway travel has of course evolved considerably since that first line opened in 1830, with vast sums of money today being invested in improving track, rolling stock and stations. Manchester Victoria, for example, is currently a giant building site with contractors creating a new airy concourse that 21st century passengers will want to use. But our rich railway heritage has, quite rightly, not been forgotten.

The world’s first passenger railway terminal, the site in Manchester where those pioneer travellers set-off from in 1830, was outgrown long ago (it closed in 1844, but remained as a goods yard) and a number of new terminals have opened in the city to satisfy demand. Thankfully though the original station, described by the Railway Companion in 1833 as a “fine stuccoed building, with ample convenience for transacting a business equal to the largest coach-office establishment London” in Liverpool Road survives.

Today, it is quite fittingly, a part of the Museum of Science and Industry (where visitors can also get on board Robert Stephenson’s Planet locomotive which pulled passengers on the line from December 1830). Some imagination is needed though, as modern visitors don’t enter through the front entrance, but through one of the waiting rooms at platform level. Helpfully though I was greeted by the 1837 words of James Cornish, pasted onto one of the walls during my visit:

“We proceed up a flight of stairs and find ourselves in a spacious apartment used by the passengers waiting for any of the trains. It is commonly fitted up for the comfort and convenience.”

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The first-class passenger booking hall at Liverpool Road station

The first class passenger booking halls is today virtually empty, expect for a wooden counter where people would have bought tickets (or picked up boarding passes if they had bought tickets from an agent at a hotel in the centre of Manchester) and has been heavily renovated. In fact, the floors look so shiny that it could be confused with a trendy art gallery in Shoreditch (the room above, the first class passenger waiting, was in fact housing an art exhibition when I visited). Meanwhile, the second class booking hall has few remaining traces from when it was a railway station, but it does have an interesting display of souvenirs (particularly mugs) produced to coincide with the line’s opening.

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Souvenirs produced to celebrate the opening of the Manchester & Liverpool Railway in 1830

Outside the original station entrance, there were major road works in Liverpool Road when I visited so no cars passed, but when passenger trains left from here in the 1830s and 1840s it would have been an extremely busy place. Given it was then considered to be some distance from the centre of Manchester, people arrived here by horsedrawn omnibuses and had their luggage unloaded on the forecourt. This hustle and bustle is captured in several contemporary paintings.

Standing on what was the original platform, it becomes clear that the station wasn’t built in isolation; it formed part of a complex of railway buildings, that included a shopping arcade (which had limited success and were only really used as offices), a station master’s house and storage facilities. Indeed, a structure now used as an exhibition space was the first railway warehouse in the world and dates from 1830. It was used to store everything from coal and cotton to fruit and flour. The sturdy, multi-layered timber framed structure that was pioneered at this site would be replicated elsewhere (including the Great Western Railway, now the main museum building, built 1880), changing not only the skyline of Manchester, but in other countries around the world.

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The ‘1830 warehouse’ – the world’s first railway warehouse, standing next to the Liverpool Road station

Of course, Manchester had been growing for some time when the Liverpool to Manchester Railway opened (I noted last week, for example, how the cotton trade expanded rapidly in the late early 1800s in Ancoats). And the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal which opened in 1761 to move coal from his mines at Wolseley to the city was hugely important. But railways moved things to the next level. Goods could brought in and out of the city much quicker than had been the case by road and canal. Railways quite simply created new markets and made modern Manchester.

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Former platform at Liverpool Road station


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