Drinking in Letchworth’s tee total history – in search of the world’s first Garden City

18 Dec

It is somewhat ironic that one of the first things I do after getting off the train at Letchworth Garden City – a pioneering Hertfordshire town founded in 1903 without any pubs serving beer – is stock up on alcohol. At a Sainsbury’s superstore on the edge of the town, I fill my basket with bottled ales for a Christmas party I am going to and then after unpacking the shopping at a friend’s house we head off to explore the pubs. What would Letchworth’s tee total founders have thought?

This Garden City – the world’s first – was based on the principles of social reformer Ebenezer Howard and was intended to be a new kind of town, setting out to combine the advantages of cities and the countryside while eliminating their disadvantages. His views were set out in an 1898 book entitled To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform.

Howard wanted to offer working people living in overcrowded cities a better standard of living in sturdy homes with low rents and low taxes. He advocated zoning – keeping industry separate from residential areas – as well as ensuring there were plenty of trees and open spaces. And pubs serving alcohol were banned from the new town (although historic ones on the boundary of the new development remained), which meant its ideas struck a chord with the Quakers. This position wasn’t reversed until a referendum of residents in 1958.

Today, Letchworth’s licensed drinking establishments are there for all to see as soon as you get off the train from London. The Colonnade – with flashing lights from its loud disco – came into vision first when I left the station building on Friday night. It was a bitterly cold evening, but smokers were happy to stand in a cordoned off outside area.

Just around the corner in Leys Avenue, the Wetherspoons seemed to be doing a roaring trade on the Friday – with most tables occupied. We instead had some drinks and food in a newly opened bar run by the Loungers chain a few doors down which has opened in an old Argos store. Given its temperance roots, pubs have been created in buildings that previously had other uses (the Wetherspoons is housed in a converted 1920s shop building for example, while a fine ale-serving pub called The Arena Tavern that we visited later can be found in a tatty parade of shops).

While Howard had laid out the philosophy for Letchworth, he didn’t actually design it. It became a reality in September 1903 when a company (“the First Garden City Ltd”) was created and architects Barry Parker and Raymond Urwin were appointed following a competition. Initially some 3826 acres of Hertfordshire countryside was purchased at a cost of £160, 378, but the town was later expanded.

Letchworth Garden City was showcased in two experimental housing exhibitions in 1905 and 1907 which together attracted some 60,000 visitors, many of whom arrived on special excursions run by the railway companies (a temporary station had been installed in 1903). The properties that participated in the Cheap Cottages Exhibitions can still be still today and – now privately owned – they can typically be identified by their commemorative plaques.

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Example of houses that participated in the orginal exhibtions – notice the plaques

But while some marvelled at Letchworth and its founders’ attempts to create better lives for inhabitants, others mocked and the town became a popular subject for cartoonists. George Orwell, referred to the town in his Road to Wigan Pier book as the place where “every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature cure-quack, pacifist and feminist in England” could be found.

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Mocking Letchworth

The fact that Letchworth had a pub – the Skittles Inn – that wasn’t licensed to serve alcohol created much ridicule. Opened in 1907, it became known as the “pub with no beer” and offered “fellowship, rest and recreation” for workers, with non-alcoholic drinks like Cydrax (a non-alcoholic apple wine), Bournville’s Drinking Chocolate, Tea and Sarsparilla served at the bar.

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The Settlement

Since 1925 the building has been known as The Settlement, and has been run as a centre for adult education and local activities. The Letchworth Adult Educational Settlement had in other premises from 1920, with its first courses being Geology and English Literature.

The first public building in Letchworth was the Mrs Elizabeth Howard Memorial Hall, opened in March 1906 in memory of Ebenezer Howard’s first wife who had died two years earlier. We hired it as a group of 21 friends at the weekend for a Christmas meal – serving up turkey and all the trimmings – and it still seems to be used by a range of community groups through the week.

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Mrs Elizabeth Howard Memorial Hall

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Inside Mrs Elizabeth Howard Memorial Hall

Fundraising and donations from residents paid the £1,300 needed to construct this wonderful building – white-washed inside and retaining exposed wooden beams in the roof – which was the home for Letchworth’s first library. The Grade II listed hall has over the years been used for everything from pantomimes and debates to youth clubs and a meeting place for the vegetarian society. And it is set at the end of Howard Park and Gardens, a popular park with formal gardens.

In 1935 a Georgian-style Town Hall was built overlooking the splendid Broadway Gardens – right in the heart of the Garden City – to house the District Council. The building, which looks like it could be from Boston in Massachusetts, is impressive in its own right but could have been part of a much grander scheme with a palace as its centre, as an etching in the ground shows.

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Town Hall

Broadway Gardens was re-designed in 2003 to mark the town’s centenary and now includes attractive fountains. This open space is also not far from Letchworth’s independent cinema (Broadway Cinema) which is housed in a 1930s Art Deco building and today has four screens retaining many original sumptuous interiors.

But Letchworth was not just ahead of its time on account of its housing and public facilities, as the Spirella Building on the north side of the town testifies. Built in three stages between 1912 and 1920 for Spirella – a famous US corset maker – the “factory of beauty” went further than most workplaces by providing its employees with showers, baths, fitness classes, a library and free eye tests. And it had a ballroom – still there and used for numerous events – so that the employees could attend formal dances.

The Spirella company stopped making corsets in Letchworth in the 1980s and the building fell into a poor state of repair. But the factory was purchased by the Letchworth Garden City Corporation in 1994 and it was re-opened in 1999 by HRH the Prince of Wales following an £11 million regeneration programme. Today, the Grade II* listed building is set in landscaped gardens with fountains.

Following the formation of the Garden City Association by Howard in 1899, he hoped that numerous Garden Cities would be built across the country. In the end just two were created in England, both in Hertfordshire – Letchworth and Welwyn. While the principals influenced many more developments around the world and indeed later planning policy, they didn’t take off as envisaged.

Today, the town is run and preserved by the Heritage Foundation that uses all profits to improve the town – hence why there is a very active scene of local groups. My weekend hosts are currently applying for a grant to help restore their back door to one more architecturally in keeping with the town’s heritage.

Before getting the train back to London, we had a walk around Norton Common, which encompasses 63 acres of grass and woodland, plus tennis courts, a bowling green and an open air pool. In one respect, this sums up everything that Howard wanted to create – a place where workers could live in pleasant surroundings. And the town is enclosed in a 13-mile circular countryside walk called The Garden City Greenway.

But in reality however Letchworth became popular with just the skilled middle classes and today it’s a long way from its self-sustaining ideals – many residents commute into capital for work. And The Greenway is currently threatened by new housing developments that North Hertfordshire District Council is under pressure to deliver. Then of course there are the pubs. What would Howard and the other founders think about these?

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Norton Common

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Spirella Building

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Broadway Cinema

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Letchworth Garden City

The harsh realities of a pauper’s prison – visiting The Spike in Guildford

11 Dec

On Guildford’s bustling high street the build up to Christmas is in full swing. The decorations are up, the Salvation Army band is playing and the shops are packed. Here in commuter belt land, the tills are ringing like there is no tomorrow.

But a mere 20 minutes walk away, a fascinating heritage project recounts the time when, for some people, things were far less prosperous. The Spike community centre was built in 1906 by Guilford Union Workhouse as a night shelter for vagrants – the lowest of the low.

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The Spike


Society at the time tended regarded these tramps as idle rogues, who did not want to work, but in many cases that was not true. They often lived precarious lives, picking up odd jobs – such as labouring – which could have lasted just one day at a time and varied depending on the time of year.

Visiting The Spike in Guildford at the weekend, I entered the same outside waiting room that vagrants would have sat in as they waited to register for their overnight accommodation. The shelter – like other Spikes – usually only took in tramps for one night at a time (and they couldn’t return for 30 days), before they were required to move on.

I ring the bell outside the waiting room and take a seat. But rather than being greeted by a workhouse porter, I’m met by a friendly guide who – after needing to quickly drill a hole in the wall – shows me around. And bar a few volunteers setting up for an evening performance of songs from the musicals (hence the need for some impromptu construction work to create a stage), the place is deserted and I have a personal tour.

We go outside and take stock of the site, which is now made up of modern housing set around a park, and use an old plan to consider what the area used to be like. The Guildford Union Workhouse was established in 1838 to house the poor, infirm and destitute following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This important legislation united groups of parishes – which individually had been required to collect taxes and support the poor since 1601 – into larger poor law unions run by Boards of Guardians.

Hundreds of workhouses sprung up across the country, including the Guildford Union which steadily grew to numerous buildings, as a result of the Act. These institutions provided relief for the sick and old, but – as the name suggests – work for the able-bodied who hadn’t been able to secure employment elsewhere. Inhabitants were given food and lodging in return.

But workhouses overlooked the most vulnerable members of society – some of whom had mental health difficulties – because Masters wanted to keep parish expenditure trimmed. Those that did provide relief wanted to keep these vagrants (who were depicted as “filthy, crude and coarse, regularly in gangs, they drank, fought, cussed and swore”) away from others in the workhouses for fear of them spreading infection. In Guildford, they were initially accommodated in converted stables, for example.

And then in 1906 a new purpose-built Casual Ward was opened, with separate sections for men and women. Before being given a meal, the vagrants would need to register and state where they had come from and where they were planning to go next. Well-trodden routes developed. The very room where registrations and medical checks took place – a space that would have been cramped if everyone arrived at the same time – is open to visitors and today shows a short film dramatising what life would have been like for those who stayed here.

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Depiction of a vagrant in the waiting room


The Spike hasn’t been restored to one particular moment in time, so you get a broad understanding of its history. Baths were, at times, compulsory for new arrivals and often the water was re-used, so it must have become very murky. Visitors today are shown the freestanding tubs in the original bathrooms. After they had washed they were given clothes to change into for the night.

Walking down the main corridor, it feels like you are in a prison. That’s because it was one. Vagrants were locked in individual cells – a strategy designed to put an end to the frequent disturbances that had come with having large groups in one room – and initially slept on the floor or on uncomfortable straw mattresses. Each had a spy hole so the Master could keep a check on the inmates. When I visited The Spike at the weekend, the heating was clearly on and the place felt warm, but operated as a Casual Ward it must have got pretty cold at night.

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Main corridor of The Spike – individual cells on left and right


Vagrants had to earn their keep before they were released in the morning, thus providing an incentive for workhouse Guardians to cater for this swathe of society. The chores often involved several hours of breaking stones for road building or chopping old wooden railway sleepers in work areas at the back of their cells. You can still see the iron grids where inmates would put the broken materials so they dropped straight into containers outside.

Another task was for the vagrants to pick apart old rope (hence the phrase “money for old rope”) using a pointed tool or a spike. This explains the origins of the name for casual wards. Once inmates had completed their chores, they were off again to their next job and to another Spike (the two characters in the film I watched said they were going to Woking next).

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Individual cell at The Spike. Area at the back was for complusory manual work, such as stone breaking.

The Spike in Guildford remained in use as a council run night hostel until 1962 and was then used for storage by St Luke’s Hospital (which had itself grown out of Guildford Union Workhouse). But in more recent years there were plans to turn the building into housing for key workers. That plan would have seen many original features ripped out, which would have been an absolute tragedy. And only a small number of the cells would have remained for visitors to see.

Thankfully a group of dedicated group of volunteers battled to save The Spike and, in 2008, it was opened to the public for visits. Most of the original building remains intact, although some of it has been converted into rooms which can be let out to provide a vital source of revenue and therefore helping keep the project alive. Sadly, however, while Guildford’s busy high street is showing signs of prosperity, away from the busy shops, bars and restaurants some people still do still leave precarious lives and homelessness remains an unsolved problem.

The Spike is open for guided tours every Tuesday and Saturday from 10am to 4pm (the last tour starts at 3:30pm). For more information click here.

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Modern housing near The Spike


Christmas cards and the re-invention of a festive tradition – the history of sending season’s greetings through the post

4 Dec

At kitchen tables – and offices – across Britain right now many are likely to be engaged in an annual festive conversation: “How many Christmas cards should we send and who should they go to? That’s if they are to send any printed cards at all……”

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Christmas cards line the shelves of supermarkets

In an age where many functions in life are ‘going digital’, more and more people are choosing to send Christmas greetings to friends and family through online and mobile platforms, rather than the physical act of posting an envelope in a box at the end of the road.

Today, there are plenty of free websites where you can design and send free e-Christmas cards in minutes. And some people won’t even bother with that hassle – they’ll simply log in to their Facebook and twitter accounts on December 25th and send a few lines of text wishing their friends and followers a Happy Christmas.

But not all are completely ditching Christmas cards however. Hands shot up in the air at a talk about this very tradition at the British Postal Museum and Archives in Clerkenwell when the lecturer asked how many would send more than 50 cards this year. Many kept their hands up when that was extended to 100. Some even planned to send more than 150 cards.

And you wonder whether those that were even more fanatical about sending Christmas cards were at home however – too busy to leave their kitchen table because they are so busy hand writing messages to all their friends and family….

The fascinating talk, Glad Tidings: The History of the Christmas Card, given by Steph Mastoris took the history right back to when the first Christmas cards were commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 (although there have been earlier claims). It was a one-sided design (they only became hinged in the 1880s) showing three generations of a family raising a toast to the card’s recipient: on either side were scenes of charity, with food and clothing being given to the poor.

Sir Henry Cole’s first Christmas Card (1843)

Mastoris made the point that Cole’s first cards – of which only one thousand were printed – were released in the same year that Charles Dickens’ novel, the Christmas Carol was published. Both were part of the re-invention of Christmas, a tradition that had been in decline since the late 18th century, and brought back to life by the Victorians.

But in reality, both Cole’s commission and Dickens’ novel were ahead of their time. The Christmas card didn’t really take off until printing processes improved in the 1860s / 70s so that colour and an array of different textures could be used. And the idea – popularised by Dickens – of whole families coming together to celebrate Christmas also didn’t really start to take place until the late 19th century.

Until an 1871 Act made Boxing Day a public holiday, most only had one day off for Christmas before they needed to return to work. And it wasn’t until the advent of the railways that workers could travel in a time efficient and more affordable way to reach their families.

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One-sided card dating from 1870s (British Postal Museum and Archives)

Many Christmas card manufacturers grew out of companies that produced playing cards. Charles Goodall and Co of Camden Town was said to be the first business to make Christmas cards. And over the years, the designs have become more and more varied, often reflecting our changing society.

As well as displaying a variety of wintery and religious scenes, they’ve often featured humorous scenes (including that of Father Christmas, ‘invented’ in the 1890s, in a variety of poses such as a quirky one in Mastoris’ collection of him on a motorbike, with a side card). And during the World Wars, many of the images were patriotic.

After the Second World War, Unicef brought out the first charity Christmas card, an area which is now estimated to be 80% of the market. Selling these designs represents an important revenue stream for many not-for-profit organisations and supermarkets are full of these cards.

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Shelves of supermarkets are lined with charity Christmas cards

Through the 20th century, the production of Christmas cards evolved and stationery manufacturers considered it a profitable business. But now with new digital techniques, it’s questionable as to what the future holds for the tradition of sending families colourful designs.

But research commissioned by Royal Mail last year found that 72% of people prefer to receive a traditional card to any electronic festive greeting sent through social media channels. And the Greeting Card Association’s Greeting Card Market Report 2014 estimates that card market as a whole increased by 5.4% year on year. It also says the “Christmas Boxed” market has a volume of 900m cards and a value of around £200m.

And judging by this week’s headlines however they are still a central part of our lives right now. Although whether former Prime Minister Tony Blair will be sending cards next year is debatable. He’s been ridiculed this week for his “terrier teeth” and some say he wife Cherrie has been superimposed onto the picture. Maybe he’ll be choosing his distribution lists a little more carefully next year.

Erm, everything all right there Tony? The card sent out by Tony Blair this year showing him and wife Cherie posing together was met with ridicule last night - not least because of the former PM's odd expression

In search of the father of communism: Finding Friedrich Engels in the shabby back streets of Manchester

27 Nov

With discarded pizza boxes, overflowing industrialised-sized wheelie bins and a strong smell of vomit, the shabby back alleys and open air car parks of Manchester hardly portray the city in the best light. As you would expect, the Christmas market stalls and high street stores are doing a much better job of pulling in the crowds at this time.

Why then would I choose to spend a good few hours wandering around some of Manchester’s quieter, less salubrious spots?

In short, it seemed a fitting way of finding out more about Friedrich Engels (who would have been 194 tomorrow). When the founder of communism – who formed a long-standing partnership with Karl Marx – went about chronicling the experiences of Manchester’s over worked and impoverished labourers in the mid-19th century he went into their slums in the centre of the city.

The cotton industry – of which Manchester at one stage controlled 80% of the world market – grew extremely rapidly in the late 18th and early 19th century, bringing about a surge in the population. Between 1773 and 1801 the population of Manchester almost quadrupled in size from 22,500 to 84,000 inhabitants. But adequate living accommodation and large families were squashed into small spaces where cholera became rife.

While the crumbling homes they lived in have largely been wiped away through the modernisation of Manchester, many of the surroundings that would have been familiar to the poor remain. Even in places where new buildings have sprung up, it’s the roads, courtyards and railway viaducts that provide clues to the city’s past.

I joined Ed Glinert, former Private Eye staff writer and author of the Manchester Compendium, on a walking tour in search of the Manchester that Engels would have known. From visiting the spots of where he chronicled the living conditions faced by the poor to the site of his office where he spent where his days as a cotton merchant our guide did his best to turn the clock back 170 years.

Born in 1820 in what is now Wuppertal in Germany, Engels was sent to Manchester by his father in 1842 to work in the family’s textile business, Ermem and Engels (which had its head office in Southgate, near where House of Fraser is today). It was hoped that by moving abroad, his soon would leave radical side behind. But arriving in the North West and seeing what industry did to ordinary people only seemed to make him more determined in his cause.

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Location of Engels’s office in Southgate, near where House Of Fraser is today

During his time in Manchester Engels stayed at multiple addresses (none of the properties are still standing) but it’s unclear how long he spent in each. The Prussian secret services had closely followed his movements back at home on account of his anarchist behaviour and he believed he would also be tracked here, so he kept patchy records.

In his day job as a merchant, he would meet other businessmen in the Exchange (now Royal Exchange, a recently refurbished theatre) where cotton deals were thrashed out before the transactions were hammered out in near-by chop houses in the old city.

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Royal Exchange Theatre


But his views remained very different from that of his father who was a keen supporter of capitalism. Indeed, before Friedrich arrived in Manchester, Engels senior put an advert in the Manchester Guardian thanking the authorities for their help in quashing the Great Strike of 1842. Friedrich would have been appalled.

Engels Junior devoted a considerable amount of his time in the North West walking the streets of the world’s first industrial city, charting the conditions of the poor. Accompanied by his Irish partner Mary Burns, he was appalled that many lived in absolute squalor, especially given the vast sums of money that were flooding into Manchester thanks to the cotton trade.

He reported his findings in the Condition of the Working Class in England, published in German in 1844 and translated into English in the 1870s. Here Engels described an area called Little Ireland, which is today the vicinity of Oxford Road station:

“In a rather deep hole, in a curve of the Medlock and surrounded on all four sides by tall factories and high embankments, covered with buildings, stand two groups of cottages, built chiefly back to back, in which live about 4,000 human beings, most of them Irish. The cottages are old, dirty, and of the smallest sort, the streets uneven, fallen into ruts and in part without drains or pavement; masses of refuse, offal, and sickening filth lie among standing pools in all directions….. The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oil-skin, sprung doors, and rotten door-posts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench must surely have reached the lowest stage of humanity.”

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Little Ireland – near Oxford Road station


While some commercial buildings (like the Royal Exchange) and the Cathedral remain, the slum accommodation in the city has largely been wiped out through successive improvement schemes. Although Glinert did point out a fried chicken shop on our walk and suggested the 18th century building was an example of a weaver’s cottage, the type of building that Engels would have seen.

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Former weavers’ cottages – now takeaways


But to truly understand the lives of workers in 19th century Manchester, we need to go back to Engels’s words. He describes the “degree of dirt and revolting filth, the like of which is not to be found elsewhere” in the vicinity of what is now Victoria station, adding:

“The worst courts are leading down to the Irk, which contain unquestionably the most dreadful dwellings I have ever seen. In one of these courts, just at the entrance where the coveted passage ends, there is a privy without a door. This privy is so dirty that the inhabitants of the court can only enter or leave the court if they are prepared to wade through puddles of stale urine and excrement.”

Engels was writing about the area during a considerable period of change, with the building of the railways making many people homeless. Victoria station itself was in fact constructed on a pauper’s burial ground and recently, with major excavation works having taken place as part of a £27m revamp for the terminus, human remains from the 19th century have been unearthed.

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Construction site at Victoria train station – built on former pauper’s burial ground


Shortly before arriving in Manchester, Engels met Karl Marx for the first time and in the years that followed the pair developed a close friendship. Indeed Engels’s income from his work in the cotton trade allowed him to finance Marx’s research, including major projects such as Das Kapital. He sent five pound notes to him in London, cut in half so that post office workers would be less likely to steal them (Ed Glinert amusingly noted that the modern way of sending payments, online, is of course free of any risk of fraud!).

Marx and Engels came to Chetham’s Library, part of an impressive collection of buildings that still stand near the busy shopping streets, in 1845 to research what developed into the Communist Manifesto and in 1852 they returned to write a satire about the communist party. Engels later wrote to Marx: “During the last few days I have again spent a good deal of time sitting at the four-sided desk in the (library) alcove where we sat together twenty-four years ago. I am very fond of the place. The stained-glass window ensures that the weather is always fine there. Old Jones, the librarian, is still alive but is very old and no longer active.”

Sadly, as I visited at the weekend, the library was closed but it is possible to go inside during the week. Apparently, it is especially popular with travellers from China and other communist countries. They all want to see the desk where the pair did some of their research.

Marx and Engels had wanted to bring about change through a complete overthrow of the capitalist system. In the end however, unlike other European countries, there was no revolution and progress slowly came about through the ballot (for them that would have been little more than tinkering with the system).

In the decade before Engels first arrived in Manchester, the town council was established (which gradually seized power from the Mosley family, the lords of manor). And over time the voting franchise was extended, both at a local and national level.

But the pair still have a lasting in legacy in helping to make society more equal place through chronicling the lives of those that didn’t have a voice. Engels’s research helped the Ten-Hour Bill, which limited the length of the working day, to be successfully passed for example.

Yet for all we know about the work of Engels during his life, thanks to his various writings, there is no grave where people can make a pilgrimage to. As was his request, when he died of throat cancer in 1895 (age 74) his ashes were scattered off Beachy Head, near Eastbourne.

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‘Scotland’ – once one of the worst areas in the city.


One hundred and fifty years on: celebrating Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge

20 Nov

What with centenary commemorations marking the beginning of the First World War in 1914 and it being 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell, we are at risk of becoming exhausted from historical anniversaries this year. But as a proud Bristolian now living in exile in London, I would like to propose just one more date that is worthy of celebrating, namely 2014 being the 150th anniversary of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Elegantly spanning the Avon Gorge, this fantastic landmark designed by the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel is for a good number of people the city’s most recognisable landmark. Many an artist has captured this amazing feat of engineering on canvas and it’s the picture postcard image of Bristol that tourists send to friends around the world.

To help mark this important anniversary, organisers are planning “the biggest and most extravagant firework display Bristol has ever seen,” according the city’s local paper. More than 100,000 people are expected to gather in and around Avon Gorge for the 15 minute display in December.

Chairman of the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust, Chris Booy said: “This remarkable bridge is a powerful symbol for Bristol and has such an important place in the hearts of local people. “We hope that residents will enjoy our anniversary celebrations and take a moment to stop and reflect on what a significant, inspirational achievement the creation of this bridge was 150 years ago.”

The city owes an enormous debt to Brunel; he was influential in establishing a rail network between, amongst other places, Bristol and London. He built two of his famous steamships here, including the SS Great Britain which was returned to the city in 1970s to a hero’s welcome and is now a popular tourist attraction. Brunel was also involved in lots of other smaller schemes in Bristol, including repairs to the Cumberland basin and contributed to enhancing waterworks. If you widen the study to the whole country, there would be enough to fill an encyclopaedia.

Brunel arrived in Bristol to convalesce from an accident while constructing the Thames Tunnel, where he had risen to become chief engineer after his father (Marc) became unwell, and heard there was competition to design a bridge to span the Avon Gorge. Merchant William Vick, had left £1,000 in his will in 1753 for such a project, noting that a total of £10,000 had to be raised before the money could be touched. Eventually in 1829 the legacy had reached £8,000 and a subscription fund was launched to raise the remainder of the money.

Engineers from around the world entered designs into the competition which was judged by Thomas Telford, a man considered to be at the top of his profession having recently completed a splendid suspension bridge over the Menai Straits. But he rejected all five finalists on the grounds of safety. There was uproar when Telford then put forward his own scheme with two gothic piers, not least because it was going to be costly to build, and so a second contest was held. Brunel was delighted when the Bridge Committee warmed to his Egyptian design which featured sphinxes guarding the stone pillars on either side of the river:

“The Egyptian thing I brought down as quite extravagantly admired by all and unanimously adopted: and I am directed to make such drawings, lithographs etc., as I, in my supreme judgement, may deem fit; indeed, they were not only liberal with their money, but inclined to save themselves much trouble by placing very complete reliance on me. They seem warm on the subject, and if the cofounded election doesn’t come, I anticipate a pleasant job, for the expense seems no object provided it is made grand.”

Brunel, aged 24 at the time, was declared the winner of the second round and a lavish ceremony was held to mark the beginning of the bridge’s construction. After a public breakfast at the Bath Hotel, down by the gorge Champagne was drunk, the Dragoon Guards played the National Anthem and speeches were held, including one from Sir Abraham Elton.

“The time will come,” he said of Brunel, “When, as that gentleman walks along the streets or passes from city to city, the cry will be raised ‘there goes that man who reared that stupendous work, the ornament of Bristol and the wonder of the age’.”

But after just three months, the dramatic events of the 1831 Bristol Riots soon put a stop to work as investment dried up. More false starts came; the foundation stone was laid in 1836 and Brunel could not resist the chance to ride across the gorge in a basket on an iron bar which had been intended to carry materials from one side to the other. His workers had done had some fun – which had initially annoyed him – and he thought he would do the same, although his pregnant wife turned down the opportunity to join him.

Unfortunately when Brunel attempted to cross in the basket it jammed and workmen, his wife and the crowd that had gathered watched anxiously as he climbed the suspension bridge rope and unlocked the jammed roller. Two hundred feet above the river, it was a daring manoeuvre. A few weeks later a couple who had just got married decided to embark on the same adventure, but unfortunately they also got stuck and had to wait until workers were able to rescue them.

Work slowly begun again and the bridge piers were completed, but then in 1842 the money dried up entirely and the Clifton Suspension Bridge went bankrupt. The trustees resurrected the basket crossing attraction in attempt to raise vital funds for the project, but the £125 in receipts was nowhere near the £30,000 required. Brunel would never get to see the bridge completed and for years the stone towers stood as white elephants on either side of the gorge.

The project’s financial problems would have come as a disappointment for Brunel, but all was not lost. Through winning the competition, he had made a name for himself in Bristol and it brought him to the attention of the people who held the key to investment in the city, the Merchant Venturers. Soon he had backers for projects in everything from trains to steam ships. Although not everyone was complimentary about his work at the time (and in recent years there have been claims that he didn’t actually design all the projects he said he did), it was this relationship with the Merchant Venturers and others that made Brunel so famous.


As for the Clifton Suspension Bridge, it was finally opened in 1864, some five years after Brunel’s death. At 10am on December 8th a packed procession left the centre of Bristol with five army regiments, a Royal Navy band and most major organisations in the city were represented. Crowds gathered in the Avon Gorge to watch the proceedings. Then at 12 noon field guns fired their salute and the first dignitaries crossed the bridge – which had been decorated with flowers – to Leigh Woods. One hundred and fifty years on, Bristol is getting ready to celebrate an amazing wonder of the world again.

Liverpool may no longer be the world city at the heart of Empire, but its grand buildings remain

13 Nov

“The commerce of Liverpool extends to every port of importance in every quarter of the world,” journalist Thomas Baines wrote in 1852. “In this respect it far surpasses the commerce of any city of which we have a record from past times, such as Tyre, Venice, Genoa, Amsterdam, or Antwerp, and fully equals, if it does not surpass, that of London and New York.”

Even if Baines was getting carried away about his home city, the growth that Liverpool experienced in the 19th and early 20th centuries was nothing short of impressive. While Manchester and surrounding Lancashire satellite towns grew into the Workshop of the World with a particular emphasis on textile production, it was Liverpool where raw materials were unloaded and finished goods to ships. Indeed, the docks here handled some 2.6 million bales of cottons for use in the 2,000 mills in the region in the 1860s.

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The prosperity brought by shipping seeped inland, right into the heart of historic streets of the medieval town (King John made it a borough in 1207 as an alternative to Chester). As a result, Liverpool can claim to have the first fully developed business district of any British city outside London. Banks, insurers, lawyers, commodity brokers and other institutions all vied for the best architects to design buildings that would become status symbols. The three famous landmarks of Liverpool that today stand proudly on the waterfront – the Port of Liverpool building, the Royal Liver building and finally the Cunard building – would be the epitome of this.

Today, after years of post-industrial neglect and decline, Liverpool is sparkling again and proudly welcoming visitors to soak up its maritime heritage. Many of those solid buildings that grew with – or in fact helped grow – the city are still standing (all albeit with new uses) and can provide a narrative on the past.

Given the importance of shipping for the local economy over the years, it makes sense to begin exploring at Liverpool docks. According to journalist William Allingham, writing in 1870, the wharves brought in goods from – and transported them to – all over the world:

“Hither converge in ceaseless streams the cotton of America, India, Egypt, the wool of the Australian plains, the elephants’ tusks and palm oil of African forests, the spermaceti of Arctic seas, the grain from the shores of Mississippi, St Lawrence, Elbe, Loire, Danube, Vistula, and many another stream, the hides of South America, the sugar, copper, tobacco, rice, timber, guano, &c., of every land the sun’s eye looks upon. Hence radiate to all corners of the globe, bales of cotton goods, linen, woollen, bulks of machinery, inexhaustible leather and hardware, salt and soap, coals and iron, copper and tin.”

Of all the docks in Liverpool, Albert Dock is probably the most famous and is today enjoyed by countless visitors every year, particularly on a sunny afternoon in the weekend when the bars and restaurants are bustling. Designed by the engineer Jesse Hartley, it was built in 1847 with a high defensive wall to protect the theft of goods unloaded from ships. It followed in a line of docks built in Liverpool – stretching back to Old Dock (the world’s first enclosed wet dock, opened in 1715) – as the wharves became busier with increased trade. “For sheer punch there is little in the early commercial architecture of Europe to emulate it,” suggested architecture guide Pevsner.

Albert Dock was well built, to the extent that the bonded warehouses (where goods were stored until customs were paid) are still standing. The dock itself was the first structure in the country to be built with cast iron, stone and brick, without the need for wooden supports, creating a system of non-combustible warehouses. And although long closed to commercial traffic (it was an abandoned in the 1980s and the water left to silt up), the buildings are back in use today – as restaurants, hotels, shops, offices and museums. For some time there was also a TV studio used by ITV’s This Morning programme which had a floating weather map in the water outside.

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Albert Dock

Many of the original maritime features remain including bridges and moorings for boats. Perhaps one of the most interesting is a cannon-like object but is known as a ‘One o’clock clock gun’ which was sounded daily, at 1pm, so that those using the dock could synchronise their clocks. The hydraulic pumping station – a world first, dating from 1870 – which provided power the docks is also still standing and has been lovingly restored as a pub. Alongside boats which have been brought into Liverpool for restoration, other historic features remain such as the area where officials tested goods (like liquids) and a former cooper’s workshops where barrels were resealed.

Reminders of the time when Liverpool was a dominant commercial centre can be found just a few streets back from the historic dock area. Building began here following King John’s decision to make Liverpool a borough in 1207 but it remained a backwater for around 500 years. The city (it officially became one in 1880) grew considerably in the 18th century on the back of the transatlantic slave trade when the likes of raw cotton, sugar and tobacco flooded into the wharves. Some new buildings sprung up in Liverpool in this period, but what we see today are mainly structures from the second half of the 19th and early part of the 20th century.

It was during this time that separate warehouse and office districts began to emerge, the latter largely organised into clusters of individual professions that supported shipping companies. Given Liverpool’s dominance as a world city in the 19th and first part of the 20th it’s no surprise that a distinctive commercial zone developed here before the likes of Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham. Whitty’s Guide to Liverpool of 1871 noted how sophisticated these buildings became:

“In no other particular has Liverpool more advanced than in the improvement of her commercial and mercantile places of business. Within the period of 25 years the offices and counting-houses were for the most part dark, damp, dismal, inconvenient and badly-ventilated places, situated in all sort of out-the-way and incommodious localities. They are now the reverse of this.”

And office interiors became more elegant in the 19th century as well, with one satirical magazine noting in 1868 they are now “designed by high-art architects at high-art prices, and are furnished by high-art upholsterers and cabinet-makers in a style of ‘princely magnificence'” Sadly many of these original features no longer remain, so we have to imagine the marble floors, sculptures and lavish decorative columns.

The centre piece was of the commercial district just a stone’s throw from the Town Hall (the third one of these buildings stands today) was the Exchange. Originally built as a speculative development of offices and warehouses for merchants surrounding the Flags where the actual trading took place. It was re-built in 1864 with purely office space as this was deemed more profitable. Interestingly traders continued to conduct their business outside until 1896 when the first indoor trading hall was built.

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The Exchange

Surrounding all of the offices were cafes and restaurants where workers who had travelled in from the outer areas of Liverpool could get their midday meals. There were also hotels in this district but the best ones increasingly moved nearer Lime Street and Central stations as the railway age matured through the 19th century. And of course this district also attracted the best shops, including wine merchants and upmarket tailors.

The commercial district was a born as a direct response to Liverpool’s role as a city of Empire so when maritime trade sunk drastically by the 1980s many of the supporting professions also left as well. The rise of air transport, containerisation with favoured ports closer to the sea and an increased focus on trade with continental Europe (and hence ports in the South and East) were the poisons which brought death to the city’s inner ports.

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Although not the commercial centre it once was, many of these wonderful buildings remain standing and have found new uses, as bars, restaurants and homes. Organisations that need offices have by and large opted for completely new buildings in other parts of Liverpool; with modern technology requirements this is often the cheapest option. On a recent visit to visit to Liverpool I found the former White Star offices have now opened as a boutique hotel. Meanwhile the old grand Bank of England building with giant Doric columns conveying the financial institution’s strength and stability is up for sale, awaiting an investor to bring it back to its former glory.

Back on the waterfront, the Cunard building – one of the three great landmarks that would have greeted so many people when they arrived in Liverpool by ship – has recently been acquired by Liverpool City Council and is due to become the port’s new cruise terminal. Currently around 50 liners arrive in the port each season, but officials are hoping this number can be increased. For a building that retains the luxurious first-class check-in area there couldn’t be a more fitting use for one of the emblems of Liverpool.

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Liverpool ONE shopping centre

Can DJs and art shops help put seaside resort Ramsgate back on the map?

6 Nov

Boarded up and becoming derelict, the Royal Victoria Pavilion is an eye sore in a prominent spot on Ramsgate’s seafront. The distinctive white building, which opened in 1906 and was popular with daytrippers from London in the first half of the century, has stood empty since 2008. Today, it’s only really enjoyed by skateboarders who use its terraces as ramps.

When Ramsgate was a popular seaside resort with visitors arriving from the capital by train, the pavilion was a thriving venue with a concert hall, assembly rooms, shops, cafés, a photographic studio and sun terraces. It was the beating heart of the seaside resort and had the sort of attractions you would only normally find at the end of a pier.

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From 1969 to 2008 the pavilion was both a casino and a nightclub. But now it faces an uncertain future. And the town seems divided as to what should happen to it. Wetherspoons wants to convert it into a superpub (the venue is so big that if all the floor space was used for a pub it would be the biggest in Britain, beating the Moon Under Water in Manchester), others has suggested it becomes a foodie market while traditionalists want it to remain an entertainment venue.

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Royal Pavilion – awaiting a decision on its future

As the public consultations and reviews drag on, the Royal Victorian Pavilion stands as a reminder for some that Ramsgate’s better times have been and gone.

While Ramsgate began life as a small fishing village and farming hamlet long ago (versions of the name first appeared in 1225), it was the arrival of the first railway line in 1846 (with a station in the town centre) that truly put the resort on the map. And the opening of the Ramsgate Harbour (or Sands) station in 1863 (which operated until 1926) meant that daytrippers literally arrived on the beach.

The prominent promenade site, not far from the Royal Victoria Pavilion, has yet to be re-developed all these years on (apartments are planned). Visitors now arrive at a station a mile from the town and face a dreary walk through the suburbs and then down the High Street.

Victorian and Edwardian photos capture Ramsgate in its heyday. Back then the main beach was invariably packed with holidaymakers wading into the sea – wearing the same clothes as they wouldd wear to church on a Sunday – while others relaxed on deck chairs on the sands.

Entertainers performed shows along the beach, groups of children organised games for themselves and cafés did a booming trade. Others enjoyed the paddling pools and at one stage there was even a pier. The fun of a family day out in Victorian times is captured in a letter extract:

“Today I have had such an amazing day. Papa and Mama took the whole family to the beach at Ramsgate! Yes, all that way and we went by train. Mother was shocked at father’s suggestion he might nude bathe with the other men at their separate area of the beach. She suggested that a bathing machine might be more appropriate.

“The beach was already quite crowded but we found a place to establish ourselves and when the chairs arrived all was complete. Father had paid to have them fetched from a nearby hotel. We girls were content to promenade along the sand, watching a Punch and Judy show and listened to the hurdy gurdy player. We held our parasols aloft and our bonnets in place to keep the sun from reaching us. Indeed, had it not been for the gloves we had brought, I fear that we might have had very pink hands by the end of the day! Ramsgate itself is a fine town and we finished off our day with a tray of tea at a tea shop on the promenade.”

Changing tastes and the popularity of overseas package holidays – where sun was guaranteed were the un-doing of towns likes Ramsgate. Indoor amusement arcades opened in a bid to provide activities when the weather was too bad to be outside but even those have now largely disappeared.

But it would be wrong to completely write off Ramsgate. When I visited it was a sunny October Saturday and I found a comfortable cafe with a front row view of the harbour. Across the road, I could see the masts of the yachts bobbing and the place seemed to be thriving. The maritime museum – one of the town’s few attractions – was closed, but there were still plenty of people out enjoying the good weather.

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In a magazine I found lying around in the cafe, there was an article about dance DJs and producers moving to the Ramsgate area. It seemed a bizarre thought to leave the likes of London, Berlin and New York and build new lives in what many would consider a faded seaside resort so why did they make the move?

“I came here thinking ‘Oh well, I like to live by the sea, it’s not too far from London, I can get on with things’,” said one interviewee. “But now there seems to be a critical mass here. Every week there’s something new and interesting happening. Berlin was supposed to be the electronic music hub of the world, and yet I’ve found more of a musical community here than there.”

It seems those in the music industry aren’t the only new people that have been drawn to Ramsgate in recent years. When I explored more of the town later in the day, I found an array of trendy galleries and quirky art shops. Often hidden away down backstreets in spots, you wonder how on earth they manage to sell anything.

Away from the grim High Street, Ramsgate’s splendid Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architecture shines through. The squares, crescents and bandstands are still in use and enjoyed today.

And then of course there’s the very thing that brought visitors to Ramsgate in the first place – the long stretch of golden sands. It may have been October, but given the heat I contemplated swimming in the sea. Remembering I didn’t have the appropriate attire I opted instead for a walk on the beach and wasn’t disappointed. The crashing waves were on one side, the white chalk cliffs on the other, and I largely had the place to myself.

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