CUBA ON THE CUSP – PART THREE: Preserving old Havana and helping its people build better lives

30 Jan

For the buildings that do still stand, the long process of restoring Habana Vieja has begun. City Historian Eusebio Leal Spengler – who has been working in the city since 1982 when the district gained World Heritage status from Unesco – set up a holding company called Habaguanex in 1994 to raise finances through tourism, with proceeds split between repairing crumbling buildings and social projects in the city.

Habaguanex is in a unique position in that it runs 20 historic hotels, numerous restaurants and over 30 museums in the city. It officially receives no money from central government, but it benefits from all the revenues that tourism brings in. And even though the culinary standards and service levels may not be up to scratch in its establishments, at least the more visitors that spend money in the old city, the more the district benefits.

The ‘before’ (uninhabitable shells) and ‘after’ (fully restored buildings) photos on each of the properties in Plaza Vieja – which was laid out in 1559 – are testament to the progress that has been made. It has a replica of a fountain with stained glass as its centre piece. And an array of popular bars and restaurants (many with first floor terraces) can be found around the square, along with a primary school and housing.

But one of the most popular draws when I visited seemed to be a micro-brewery (La Factoria Plaza Vieja – the only such establishment in Havana), serving a choice of three home brewed beers. Some groups were sharing plastic towers filled will beer, with taps at the end so they could serve one another. With a little more of the afternoon sun remaining, I opted for the lightest brew and grabbed a ring-side table at the edge of the cobbled square. It was a great spot to take in the fruits of this wonderful restoration project, while being entertained by a band playing La Bamba.

One famous institution that Habaguanex re-opened in 2013 after a big restoration programme by the City Historian’s Office was Sloppy Joe’s, a bar that gained a notorious reputation amongst Americans during prohibition who came over to Cuba to drink alcohol (which was prohibited at the time back home). Cocktails were plentiful, but the venue – opened by José Garcia in an old warehouse on the edge of Habana Vieja – suffered from a sloppy lack of sanitation, hence the name.

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Sloppy Joes in Havana


The bar remained popular in the 1930s and 1940s (with the Mafia – who enjoyed soggy shredded sandwiches known as the ‘Sloppy Joe – becoming important customers. But it closed down in the 1960s after a fire gutted the interiors and stood board up for some 50 years.

Thankfully the white stone, neoclassical façade survived the blaze. And there has been an attempt to keep the bar’s ambiance and decoration as close to its 1920s and 1930s heyday, with a long mahogany bar installed down one side. High tables and stools are positioned around pillars with countless signed pictures of those that have visited (the likes of Frank Sinatra, Graham Greene and Ernest Hemmingway – who seemed to drink in every bar in Havana – visited).

In truth though, the place doesn’t feel that authentic and it seems like the restoration team tried just that little bit too hard (I felt like I was walking into a polished theme bar straight out of a new build hotel in Dubai). The glass cabinets around the edge are filled will expensive cigars and rums for visitors to buy. And I found the service far from sloppy, but slick and efficient.

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Inside Sloppy Joe’s


But I wanted to see how money from tourism was having a real impact of the lives of those that count Habana Vieux as their home, so I went on a “conversation and social projects” tour with one of the City Historian’s official guides.

From our two hour walk around the district, it’s clear that the office acts as much more than a body that protects and restores buildings. The body selects crumbling structures that it deems are important and provides the manpower and materials for the work to be done, even if they are in private hands. For homeowners in Habana Vieux being told their home is to be restored is like winning the lottery.

Residents are offered temporary accommodation while work is undertaken (I saw one such development, with plastic modular units, where some people are living until their home is ready again). And if homes come tumbling down (which seems often in Havana, where visitors are told to avoid the pavement in certain places) the City Historian’s office can step in and find alternative lodgings for the displaced family. In exchange, the body can negotiate ownership for the vacated land and – if the building is beyond repair – may then decide to build new homes.

The City Historian’s office is also an influential provider of day care centres for elderly people. I visited for example an 18th century former convent which until a few years ago was a ruin. Following restoration, it now welcomes hundreds of elderly people who, for a nominal fee, enjoy a lunchtime meal, plus numerous activities through the day, such as craftwork and drama classes. Workshops are often run in partnership with primary school children.

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Wonderfully restored 18th century convent – now a day centre for elderly people

What impressed me about the work going on Havana is the City Historian’s office does not want to create a giant museum that only tourists and the wealthy can afford to enjoy. Habana Vieux is a living district, with ordinary people living in the renovated areas. In other places in the world, the apartments in Habana Vieux (where I visited the micro-brewery) would be rented out or sold for extortionate sums.

The Revolution had a terrible impact on buildings in Habana Vieux leaving many in a terrible state of repair, as I found when I first entered this district. Some were knocked down, to be replaced with brutal, Soviet-style structures that are a blot on the landscape. But it’s great to see that parts of the old city are being preserved – albeit one block or street at a time – with historic institutions re-instated. And projects are also helping improve the lives of people living in Havana.

On Monday: I find out about the pleasures American tourists enjoyed in Batista’s corrupt 1950s Cuba.

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Mural in Habana Vieux depicting the past

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Soviet-style building – a blot on the landscape in Habana Vieux


CUBA ON THE CUSP – PART TWO: The foundation of Havana and uncovering a colonial city

29 Jan

Rather than the cobbled streets, lively squares and colourfully painted colonial era homes and public buildings from tourist brochures, my first experience of Habana Vieja (old Havana) was that of dilapidation. I walked through narrow, sewage-laden alleys with crumbling buildings that looked like they could topple at any point; some already had leaving gaps in the road or at the very best uninhabitable shells.

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Habana Vieux – the tourist shot

Built for wealthy merchants long before Spanish rule ended in 1898, these faded splendours had clearly seen better days. In one residential building I found in this neglected neighbourhood, there now live some 24 families (I counted the door bells) – once just a single family would have lived there.

As I walked passed tatty bars and cafes, I passed groups of men playing dominos in the afternoon sun. Women queued at ration stores for their weekly allowances. People were friendly to me, smiling and greeting me as I walked down the street; it’s a shame I couldn’t speak Spanish back to them.

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Local life – ration shop in Habana Vieux

Then just a few minutes further on, I reached the bits of Havana that seemed familiar, the types of scenes depicted in guide books. I popped my head in the splendid lobbies of a couple of wonderfully restored, historic hotels from the 19th and 20th century (like Hotel Florida, with a fantastic colonnaded central courtyard). And I wanted to have a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio, the bar made famous by Ernest Hemmingway.

Getting to the cramped bar just wasn’t going to be an option given the huge tour parties that were pouring out onto the streets. But I wasn’t too bothered as I had heard from more than one person that the standards have slipped since the author was a regular. And I would have plenty of great cocktails (mojitos and others) on my trip, in far more pleasant surroundings.

The parts of the old town that are visited by tourists were brimming with activity – a British cruise ship docked nearby can only have helped – and cafes and restaurants in and around the four popular plazas were all busy serving lunches. Traders were ushering over visitors to look at their stalls – selling everything from books about the Cuban Revolution to antiques – while Cubans in traditional dress were offering people the chance to be pictured with them for a few pesos.

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View from the roof of Hotel Ambos Mundos

The view from the roof terrace – reached by an original 1920s cage elevator – of Hotel Ambos Mundos was nothing short of superb and was an ideal place to take stock of the city while enjoying an excellent mojito. And on the way back down, I stopped to have a look at inside room 511, which is now a museum as it was Ernest Hemmingway’s base for around 10 years from 1932, where he apparently wrote three books. The original furniture has been preserved, with his original typewriter positioned on a desk allowing him to take in the magnificent harbour just outside his window.

To get an even greater perspective of Havana, it’s worth having a look at an incredible model of the city, housed inside a darkened building on Mercaderes. Mood lighting is used to depict the capital at different times in the day. It was so detailed that I could even see the swimming pool of the hotel where I was staying.

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Model of Havana

As the name and buildings found here suggests, Habana Vieja has been around for some time. Founded in 1519 on its present site (there had been two earlier attempts to create a city elsewhere, but needed to be moved due to mosquito infestations). Less than 10 years before, Diego Velasquez – a rich settler from neighbouring Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti) –conquered and brought the first true settlers to the island in 1511.

Havana was one of the “seven villas” (early towns, which also included Trinidad) and it is believed that the first mass was said under a ceiba tree in present-day Plaza de Armas, which was first laid out in the 1520s. Today, it’s one of the four main squares – described in an 1859 account of Havana as having a “garden of rich, fragrant flowers in bloom” (a scene I also experienced) where a “military band plays for an hour every evening” – that have been restored and is popular with tourists.

On my initial walk around old Havana, I went into the baroque, palatial looking building with a central shaded courtyard on the western edge of the square. Nowadays it’s the city’s museum – there’s an array of artefacts including period furniture, military uniforms from bygone days and a range of photographs of the old town – but soon after being built it became the residence of the Spanish captains general. US military governors were then based there and in the early 20th century it was the presidential palace.

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Plaza de Armas – before the crowds arrive

From Plaza de Armas, you also reach Castillo de la Real Fuerza – one of the oldest forts in the region given that construction began in 1558. Built by the Spanish as an attempt to help combat piracy, the structure – which today is an interesting museum about piracy – was however seen more as symbolic rather than an actual defence. The seas off Cuba became a central battleground as European governments set out to expand their empires meaning other fortifications would be added over the years in Havana (particularly after they were breached by the British in 1762, who went on to occupy Cuba for 11 months before taking Florida in a swap deal).

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Havana grew to be an important strategic stop-off point for ships returning to Spain with valuable minerals. They would sometimes wait – sometimes for two months – to build up a critical mass of vessels so they could travel together in the safety of a convoy. Havana therefore became an extremely cosmopolitan city, with a whole manor of trades setting up shop to “service” the fleets – from carpenters to prostitutes. And when the ships headed off it became an extremely quiet place, with accounts noting that even in the 17th century there were just a few hundred people living there.

While Havana became crowded by the 19th century – resulting in many of the city’s elite building new homes on previously uninhabited land west of the original settlement – the Cuban capital had yet to reach its heyday. The presence of great hotels, which became – and remain – renowned institutions in their own right is testament to this, where many a famous author has stayed for sometimes lengthy periods of time.

The first of these to be built was the neo-classically designed Hotel Inglaterra, which opened in 1856 on the edge of the old city and faces onto Parque Central, today the focal point of Havana. Jose Marti made an important speech at this splendid institution – which boasts a lovely terrace café at street level that’s perfect for watching the world go by – in 1879 calling for Cuban independence. As you travel around Cuba, there are numerous statues and squares named after him, such was the contribution he made to the cause.

Scottish-born John Muir provides a fascinating of his visit to Havana in 1868, describing how it “abounds in public squares, which in all my random strolls throughout the big town I found to be well watered, well cared for, well planted, and even full of exceedingly showy and interesting plants, rare even amid the exhaustless luxuriance of Cuba. These squares also contained fine marble statuary and were furnished with seats in the shadiest of places. Many of the walks were paved instead of gravelled.”

From Parque Central, the Prado – a European style, tree-lined boulevard leading down to the ocean and completed in the 1830s – acts as the border between old and central Havana. From the late 19th century, the capital’s aristocrats would parade their women folk in horse-drawn carriages (“volantes”) before dinner. The novelist Anthony Trollope described the Prado (or the Paseo) in an 1859 account as the “glory” of Havana, writing:

“This is the public drive and fashionable lounge of the town….. It is for their hour on the Paseo that the ladies dress themselves, and the gentlemen prepare their jewellery. It consists of a road running outside a portion of the wall, of the extent perhaps of half a mile, and ornamented with seats and avenues of trees, as are the boulevards of Paris.”

On my trip I was lucky enough to spend a in the incredible Moorish-influenced Hotel Sevilla, the place where Graham Greene is said to have written Our Man In Havana. It is right on The Prado and boasts a wonderful terrace swimming pool that is perfect for cooling down after navigating the hot streets of Habana Vieux.

Having a bedroom that overlooked this iconic boulevard, I can say it remains a popular place to stroll, particularly in the evening. But seems to have lost its original glamour, where people dressed up. There was an art market and a range of other stalls along the Prado when I visited. And as one of the most touristy parts of Havana, this is one of the places that you are likely to get hassled with offers of everything from a taxi to the opportunity to be escorted to “the best” restaurant in town.

While Trollope liked the Prado, he was – in contrast to Muir – less than favourable about the city as a whole, noting: “There is nothing attractive about the town of Havana; nothing whatever to my mind, if we except the harbour. The streets are narrow, dirty, and foul.” But he was more positive about the new areas being built in Havana, where the streets were “wider, more airy and less vile.”

And he was appalled that he would be charged double at his hotel for the privilege of having his own room: “I found it impossible to command the luxury of a bedroom to myself. It was not custom of the country they told me. If I chose to pay five dollars a day, just double the usual price, I could be indulged as soon as circumstances would admit it….”

As I found during my visit to the old city, Havana is a city of contrasts – some buildings are well cared for, others not so well. These extremes are perhaps best summed up by an account of Havana written by Anais Nin in 1922, where “misery is more apparent since one can see into the inmost heart of the houses through wide windows with doors flung open – across rooms to the very backyard.” She adds: “The poor are desperately poor; the rich are ostentatiously rich, but one feels at sympathy with both. Whatever repels is redeemed by much that much is touching.” How little has changed.

 Tomorrow: I discover how money from tourism is helping to transform the buildings of Habana Vieux and the lives of its residents.

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View of the Prada from Hotel Sevilla

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Interior of Hotel Sevilla

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Habana Vieux


CUBA ON THE CUSP – PART ONE: Habana Libre and the story of modern Cuba

28 Jan 2015-01-17 15.42.11

Towering 25-storeys high, the Habana Libre hotel is a distinctive landmark on the Cuban capital’s skyline. Although a short taxi ride from the cobbled old town – a Unesco World Heritage site – it is still a popular place to stay for tourists visiting this beautiful Caribbean island.

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The hotel – the biggest in Havana with 574 rooms – offers all the facilities that any traveller would want, including a choice of restaurants, a variety of bars (including one with a cabaret show on the top floor), useful shops, a business centre and travel agency desks. For anyone wanting complete luxury, look elsewhere (some parts of the hotel could do with a lick of paint and guest bedrooms – if the one I stayed in is anything to go by – could do with a refit).

But I had different reasons for wanting to stay at the Habana Libre. Reading up on the hotel before my trip to Cuba, it seemed to me that this hotel represented the very essence of change that the country has seen in modern times.

It opened in 1958 as the plush Havana Hilton in the dying months of the rule of the corrupt Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista. The city’s elite, those close to the government and a number of foreign visitors attended a grand banquet on March 19th that year where fine foods and free-flowing liquor was served. Guests were greeted from their luxurious automobiles by porters in exquisite uniforms at the car port, in the very spot where tour groups today mill around.

Then on March 22nd Conrad Hilton himself was there for the opening day of Havana’s most modern hotel, which still boasts the best views of the city from the upper floors. Guests had use of an array of amenities, including a Trader Vic’s, casino, terrace pool (still a fine spot for cooling off after a busy day of sightseeing), supper club and a rooftop bar.

But less than a year later after the Hilton opened, Fidel Castro – and his comrades – secured the Revolution in Cuba and (from January 8th 1959) they made the hotel their headquarters for three months. There are some wonderful black and white pictures of the rebels, guns poised in the vast lobby – near where today’s visitors check-in, listen to live music at one of the bars or slouch on sofas and connect to expensive wi-fi.

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Castro’s rebels sat, guns poised in the lobby of the then Hilton Havana following securing the revolution

Fidel Castro used suite 2324 as his office and press conferences, government meetings and interviews were held at the hotel (Castro frequently stayed in room 2224 – a suite that bears his name today). Two floors of the hotel were also used as the Soviet Union’s first embassy.

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Suite Castellana at the Habana Libre

In the aftermath of the Revolution, the hotel struggled to make any money so managers were forced to make redundancies. Meanwhile, relations between the US and Cuba were quickly falling apart, with US president Eisenhower in favour of a plan to sabotage sugar refineries – one of the most important industries for the country – and American businesses were under pressure not to refine Soviet oil.

Fidel Castro hit back in 1960, with the nationalisation of all US businesses, including 36 sugars mills, ports, railways and cinemas, plus – of relevance for our story of the Havana Hilton – all hotels. Casinos were also permanently closed at this time, as the new regime set out to repair the corrupt and immoral society they felt Batista had created.

Relations with the US worsened even further, with the unsuccessful CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis – the most-tense point in the Cold War given surveillance suggesting that the Soviet Union was storing nuclear missiles on an island just 90 miles away from Florida.

At the time of the Hilton’s nationalisation, the institution was renamed the Habana Libre – the name it retains today – but rather than welcoming rich American visitors as intended, it was used to host an eclectic range of guests such as arts and crafts students and peasant women who were in Havana to gain new qualifications. Parts of the building were also used as offices and for the university, while the grand halls were used for international conferences.

In the early 1990s Cuba faced an economic crisis following the fall of its main backer, the Soviet Union. The island decided to favour international tourism in a bid to bring in vital revenue to keep it afloat. And yet again, the Habana Libre began a new chapter in its short, but illustrious life.

Following a year-long refurbishment, the hotel re-opened in 1997 under the management of the Spanish Melia group (although, as with all hotels in Cuba, the government retains a controlling stake).

Today, the Habana Libre still has its critics and given the ugly concrete appearance from the outside you can understand where they are coming from. But at the same time, I think it has a great atmosphere. The two-storey atrium features ponds, considerable greenery and striking modern artwork. And given the number of people staying here, there is always hustle and bustle that other lobbies don’t have. In the evening there is often a live Cuban band playing in one of the bars.

Things have clearly moved on in Cuba in the two decades since the end of Cold War. I wanted to see how the country had changed in that time following its decision to embrace international tourism, rather than shying away from it.

But just after booking my flights to Cuba, Raul Castro and Barack Obama went on television in Havana and Washington simultaneously to make landmark announcements. After more than half a century of hostilities they declared they would begin the process of restoring diplomatic relations and would explore re-opening a US embassy in Havana.

Over the years the CIA made so many attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro – including a plot to hide explosives in his cigars – that he boasted: “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal.” But brother Raul is now calling the shots as president and there is speculation that Fidel – who has not be seen by the international community world for a year – is either dead or at the very least in a coma.

The broad US trade embargo introduced in 1962 has by some accounts crippled Cuba. While president Obama doesn’t have the power to abolish these completely (he needs the backing of Republic-held Congress, which isn’t in favour of scrapping these), he can loosen restrictions (which will greatly help the construction industry, currently facing a shortage of materials, and those working in telecommunications in Cuba).

Cuban exiles in the US will also be able to send more money back to their families in Cuba, following the December announcement. At the same time, Obama said it will be easier for exiles to visit the island nation (officially, US citizens can’t visit the island without special permission because they aren’t legally permitted to make travel-related transactions in Cuba, although many still visit by going through a third party) and they will be able to use US bank cards.

While I was in Cuba for a two-week stay, talks with a US delegation took place in Havana, a significant step-forward in the process of normalising relations between the two countries. There is clearly however some way to go.

If all Americans are allowed to legally visit Cuba again, the Habana Libre – other hotels in the city – will become extremely busy again. Will the country be able to cope? And will there one day be a Hilton in Havana again? Only time will tell.

Over the next 12 days I will share my experiences of travelling in ‘new Cuba’. Tomorrow: The foundation of Havana and uncovering colonial rule.

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Habana Libre’s terrace swimming pool



Transported back through Australia’s past in The Rocks

25 Jan

Guest blog by Oliver Clark

On my first visit to Sydney I was keen to see what remained of the city’s early colonial past, after all this was where the first European settlement of Australia began back in 1788.

I had little time for research but assumed that there would be minimal historic sights to see, on the assumption that this young nation would be unlikely to celebrate its convict past.

However, a short walk west of Circular Quay with its skyscrapers, harbour bridge and iconic Opera House, helps to quickly dispelled this ignorance. Sydney is both proud of its early European history and its on show in places such as The Rocks.

An organised walking tour of The Rocks feels almost like being transported back to Dickensian London. Winding streets with names such as Playfair, Argyle and Gas Lane are lined with of Georgian and Victorian terraced houses and old fashioned shop facades.


On main thoroughfares such as Argyle and Harrington streets, pubs such as the Hero of Waterloo, the Lord Nelson and Fortune of War vie with one another for the title of Sydney’s oldest pub and the server of its best ales and bitters. Off these little alleyways lead off to rows of old tenements where you can imagine yourself ducking under fully laden washing lines.

And the associations with Dickens vision of London don’t just end there because as our guide ‘Brian’ explained; life in The Rocks was far from the picture postcard image it is today.

The area was chosen by the first governor of Sydney, Arthur Philip as the settlement for convicts thanks to its sandstone outcrops. Philips hoped those smooth surfaces would help wash away the convicts excrement when it rained.

The decision to establish Sydney as Britain’s first settlement in Australia represented the country’s most ambitious effort to solve the problem of overflowing prisons by creating a society made up almost exclusively of convicts.

Transportation had been used before, mainly to the American colonies, but not on the same scale and eventually 166,000 British criminals would be sent to The Rocks and other Australian settlements.

Criminals were sentenced to transportation for seven years, 14 years or for life, although all those including the lifers could expect to be pardoned and become free citizens within a few years of arrival and potentially build a much better life than their brethen in Britain. Women were often given unnecessarily harsh sentences of transportation for minor offences in order to increase the female population of the colonies.

However life in those first days were hard. Many convicts had been city dwelling skilled labourers or artisans back in Britain (the typical prisoner was better educated and fed than the average working man in Britain) and they were unused to the hard physical labour of building a city from scratch.

There were no prisons as such, the land itself was seen as a barrier by the British authorities. But convicts could be flogged for minor offences.  As the colony grew living conditions in The Rocks declined to little  better than a cesspit before slowly improving.

These improvements didn’t stop some convicts escaping into the sun baked bush around the colony seeking a way out. Some believed they could walk to China, and freedom,  in two days. One even tore out a picture of a compass from a book in the hope it could guide him north to China.

In Victorian times The Rocks found a new role, as the  city’s most infamous working class slum and a den of violence, disease, drugs and prostitution.

Our guide Brian explained, as Sydney’s importance as a trading port grew during the 19th Century, gambling and opium dens, sly grog shops and brothels sprang up in The Rocks to serve the needs of sailors arriving from across the world to this far flung port of the British Empire.



With coins in short supply in the early part of the century, rum became the main currency of this colony. A practice governors failed to stamp out until coins came into greater supply.

Such was the area’s notoriety that giving evidence to a meeting of a Parliamentary Select Committee set up to investigate transportation in 1837 Sydney Superintendent for convicts E A Slade described it as follows:

“I likewise found my reasoning of the drunkenness in the colony upon the circumstance that you see drunken people on all directions, men and women fighting in the street, and the most disgusting scenes of all descriptions, particularly in that area of Sydney denominated as the Rocks, something similar to St Giles’s in London; but rather I should call St Giles’s a paradise as compared with the Rocks in Sydney”.

And visitors to The Rocks between the 1870s and 1880s had to be beware of its infamous push gangs, organised groups of young men who would mug and sometimes kill unwary travellers walking through their patch at night.

The large tunnel hewn by convict labour from the standstone rocks, called the Argyle Cut became the favoured hunting grounds of The Rocks notorious Argyle Cut Push gang.


The Argyle gang who would lie in wait for a target to mug in the dark, either hitting them over the head with a cosh made from a sock filled with wet sand   then kicking them, sometimes to death. The use of a weapon made simply from a sock and sand meant that should the police dare to enter their stomping ground the gang could be alerted, the sock emptied and placed innocently on ones foot. No weapon; no evidence. This practice is believed to be the origin of the slang phrase used today ‘Sock him one!’

The associations with Dickens continues; having been established with no sewage or drainage systems, the streets would literally run with filth. Beneath rickety tenements, effluent would run below ground, poisoning wells. When it rained any pooling effluent would  run along the cobbled streets and cascade over the ridges between rows of houses cut into the steep slopes of The Rock creating the perfect breeding ground for disease and rats.


Conditions were so cramped and unsanitary that they sparked a further enquiry into living conditions in 1859.  Finally a damning report in 1875/76 forced the city authorities to install a sewage system. While the infrastructure cost to the government were significant the affect on The Rocks or indeed the other inhabitants of Sydney were negligible because it was not compulsory for private households to be connected to the system. The cost of each connection fell to the individual  household owner so upon completion of the project only an estimated 1,000 of Sydney’s 22,000 dwellings were connected.

Only in 1900, long after London had cleaned up its sewage systems and when bubonic plague broke out in the city did the authorities really act.

A campaign to eradicate the rats (based on the understand that rats were linked to the spread of the disease) began. The public were paid for every rat they killed resulting in several hundred thousands killed. The slum areas such as The Rocks were demolished to an effort to eradicate the rat population and by 1905, and when the plague was officially wiped out in Sydney, only 165 human deaths relating to bubonic plague  had been recorded.

Thanks to the rats the slum areas including The Rocks and nearby Millers Point were taken into public ownership and later used for public housing thus saving them from commercial development and destruction. Save for the loss of a small area required for the construction of Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 1920s and 30s.

Being idyllically situated on the harbour front, in the heart of the city The Rocks faced its greatest threat in the 1970s when city planners decided to replace it with sprawling high rises and tower blocks.

A campaign led by Jack Mundey and the Green Bans movement fought to save the area, not for conservation reasons it should be noted, but for the preservation of tenants’ rights. They succeeded in halting the diggers and saving much of the historic district which can still be seen today.

In recognition of the history of The Rocks during the years 1993-1996 Peter D. Cole undertook to illustrate The Rock’s unique history through the medium of art. Re-utilising the old walkways and stairs up the steep cliffs, which are now public realm, Cole has created  ‘Foundation Park'; open plan structures bases on the housing layout of the first houses. To this day Foundation Park remains one of Sydney’s best kept secrets making it the ideal tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of modern day Sydney.


However even today there are some who say the unique character of The Rocks is once again under threat. A plan by city officials to privatise housing in areas such as Millers Point, Dawes Point and The Rocks are being fought by residents associations who claim the area’s heritage is under threat.

Whatever the outcome of these campaigns The Rocks continue to provide a fascinating insight into early Sydney, a place that still feels like it has more in common with Southwark than it does with Bondi Beach.

Looking back at 2014 on

1 Jan

Thanks to everyone that supported during 2014. Over the past 12 months I’ve had great fun uncovering history in Britain and beyond – and I’ve really enjoyed sharing my adventures with you on these pages.

Given that I live and work in London, most of my blogs have been about the capital. Here, I found the Rev Thomas Beames – who published in 1852 a book on the Rookeries of London – to be a great guide. Over the course of 1852 I followed in his footsteps, with a series of posts. 

I also looked at Victorian entertainment, by exploring the lost world of Crystal Place and Wilton’s Music Hall. And what happened when the Thames froze over and Frost Fairs  sprung up is also facinating.

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Derwent Valley – home of the world’s first factory


Georgian London was also a big theme for me in 2014, with blogs exploring everything from new neighbourhoods on the south of the river thanks to the construction of bridges.

It’s also been fascinating seeing how London is changing, not least at Nine Elms (Battersea) where a whole new neighbourhood is in the process of being constructed. Unfortunately in the past sometimes things move too quickly as the brutal demolition of the old Euston station proved.

And while I prefer 18th and 19th century history, some 20th century developments deserve to be visited, such as Becontree. 

But I also travelled further a field in 2014, visiting my home town of Bristol where I found out why the city’s Georgian spa resort deserves its place in tourism history alongside better known bath. Further north, I looked at the Yorkshire Dales National Park 60 years on from its creation.

And I had several trips to north west, taking in Manchester (and a suburb called Ancoats - the world’s first industrial suburb) and Liverpool. Near to the latter, I had an enjoyable day at Port Sunlight.

I also wrote about my year following in the footsteps of the Knight’s of St John – from Clerkenwell to Jersusalem (via Malta and Rhodes).

And getting out of London on short trips also enabled me to get to grips with our industrial past, such as visiting the first factory in Derwent Valley. Then in Birmigham I saw how the partnership between Boulton and Watt helped shape the modern world. In Rochdale I found out about the birth of the Cooperative movement.

But did the Industrial Revolution really have a negative impact on people’s lives? Decide for yourself.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know the places I’ve desribe above are only a snapshot of the fascinating discoveries I made in 2014. will take a short break for the next few weeks and we’ll be back with a bang with more great adventures from the end of January.

Thanks again for your support.

Flying into a pioneering international airport – how a trip to Croydon Aerodrome recounts the golden age of aviation

30 Dec

Taking stock of the surroundings after getting off the bus at Croydon Airport, there are the familiar signs that suggest you have arrived at a passenger terminal. Look one way and there’s a Premier Inn, while the other a Hilton – the places that people often stay the night before they head off on a flight.

But enter the Grade II listed, neo-classical terminal building and it quickly becomes apparent this is no ordinary functioning airport. Now a business centre, its doors are opened to the public just once a month, so visitors can immerse themselves in real aviation history.

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Croydon Aerodrome opened in 1928 as the world’s first purpose built international airport and was the place where pioneering air passengers set off on adventures all around the world. The airport also played an important role in the Second World War, but was closed in 1959 because most airlines had switched operations to the better facilities at Heathrow and elsewhere.

Walking into the airy and light atrium, enthusiastic volunteers were keen to recount the story of the airport’s foundation, right back to its humble beginnings in 1915 half a mile down the road. Where a housing estate now stands, New Barn Farm was chosen as the site for an airfield – named Beddington Aerodrome – and it was used as a Home Defence squadron base during the First World War.

After the hostilities were over civil flying quickly became popular, so it was decided the site needed to be expanded and Croydon Aerodrome was born. The new terminal building – depicted at the centre of a wonderful surviving scale model showing surrounding aircraft hangars – that can be visited today was opened on 2nd May 1928.

Clearly a lot has changed in the entrance hall over the years, but you still get a sense of its original character. Photos on the walls show how the wooden booking counters of the original airlines that operated from Croydon – including Imperial Airways, Sabena, Air Union (later Air France) and KLM – were around the edge of this main space.

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Entrance hall when it was an airport……..

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……..and the entrance hall now.

There was only one departure gate, so once passengers had bought their tickets they would have waited on benches in the centre of the entrance hall for their flight to be called. They could have had coffee (a café remains in the entrance hall), visited the post office or bought a paper at the newsstand (the markings from this remain on the floor) run by WH Smith.

And there was a wooden pillar – sadly lost – with clocks showing the time in numerous world cities. Given that departures and arrivals were listed it doubled up as an early indicator boards. Passengers could also keep track on international weather thanks to a large map that was updated by hand every hour.

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The Times newspaper was clearly impressed with the new terminal, noting: “the transformation of the Croydon Aerodrome has already been appreciated by passengers to and from the Continent… they now find a convenient landing-stage, pleasant waiting rooms, more light and warmth and even a hotel.”

And Imperial Airways highlighted the benefits of Croydon Aerodrome to its passengers in 1932:

“There’s none of the fuss of ordinary travel. No girding up your loins to plunge into the melee at customs and passport offices. The airport and Croydon reminded me much more of a club. You are not hurried or jostled.”

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Aerodrome Hotel today

Early aircraft needed to be carefully balanced and so passengers – along with freight and crew – were weighed at check in. If the flight was not correctly planned, then the plane would not get off the ground.

Black and white pictures – which enthusiastic guides are more than happy to talk about at length – showing what the terminal was like line the walls of Croydon Aerodrome’s main building. There are also numerous colourful adverts and timetables on display which provide a record of the destinations – from Europe right out to the Far East – it served.

Some of this promotional material is particularly fascinating, including a poster encouraging people to take a 30 to 40 minute Imperial Airways flight and “have tea in the air over London.” Passengers would be picked up in a car from the airline’s offices in SW1 at 2:30pm and be returned at about 5pm. The flight ran every Friday during the summer months. And the chance to have an “inspection of new air-port of London” was also promoted as one of the benefits of going on the trip.

There was considerable competition between the different airlines, so they all tried to outdo each other with service. It meant that five course meals, served with fine wines, and on the finest china was not uncommon.

The basis for the air-traffic control system in use today was developed at Croydon. Visitors can see the pioneering Control Tower, complete with what was then state-of-the-art radio equipment, which allowed staff to communicate with pilots and help them land and take off. It was also at Croydon that the principal of giving air controllers jurisdiction of all movements in a particular section of airspace. Today, all the equipment looks very primitive – pilots were guided by little more than lights and radio signals.

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Control Tower

Next door to the terminal building is the Aerodrome Hotel which opened around the same time as the airport with 50 bedrooms, half of them with bathrooms. Now operated by Hallmark Hotels, it’s been extensively refurbished and once you are inside you could be in any 4* hotel. It was here that many passengers stayed the night before they set off on their travels, including Amy Johnson before her pioneering solo flight to Australia.

Photos show how in these early days for aviation, masses of spectators lined steps outside the hotel – and the roof of the terminal itself – to watch so many of their heroes set off on their adventures. Aside from Johnson, legends who visited Croydon included Charles Lindbergh, who flew into the airport in 1927 shortly after completing the first solo trans-Atlantic flight.

World War Two halted passenger services as the civil airlines moved out and the aerodrome became known as RAF Croydon, forming part of 11 Group, Fighter Command. The airfield – and the factories surrounding it – became a prime target and during a devastating Luftwaffe attack on 15th August 1940 62 people were killed and more than 200 were injured. In 1943, RAF Croydon played a key role in the war effort as it was used for dispatching thousands of troops into Europe.

Croydon once again welcomed passenger planes after the war was over but Heathrow now took up the mantle of London’s main international airport. While it continued to operate as a regional airport for some time, other airfields around the capital offered more space – essential as airliners became larger – and better facilities. Croydon never updated its grass runways. Appropriately, it was a Geoffrey Last that captained the airport’s last flight – a service to Rotterdam – on 30th September 1959. That was the end of 44 years of aviation history.

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The terminal building itself lay derelict until 1991 when work began to turn it into a business centre, with individual offices let out to numerous firms. But it’s wonderful that the character of the Croydon Aerodrome’s lavish entrance hall – now called Airport House – remains and that there are so many enthusiastic volunteers who are bursting to share its story with visitors.

Croydon Airport Visitor Centre is open on the first Sunday of the month from 11am to 4pm. For more information click here. 

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Miserable view today from the Control Tower

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Remembering charity schools that gave poor boys and girls their first taste of education

24 Dec 2014-11-29 13.21.02

For the staff and pupils of a historic Croydon school there has been plenty to celebrate this year. Over the course of 2014, Archbishop Tenison – named after founder the Archbishop of Canterbury – has been marking the tricentenary of its establishment for the teaching “ten poor boys and ten poor girls.”

Teaching for boys initially focused on reading and writing, while for girls the emphasis was on sewing and spinning. The Church’s influence on the school was particularly telling given that until 1758, when spelling books were introduced, only Bible and prayer books were used by children.

But Archbishop Tenison was just one of many establishments that sprung up in the 18th century as part of the Charity Schools Movement, which had emerged from the 1690s. The campaign was driven forward by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) following its foundation in 1699 and provided the only real educational provision for poor children until the Sunday school movement in 1785.

At a time of rapid urbanisation resulting in many children growing up in destitution, SPCK believed that providing education would prevent ignorance, vice and debauchery. Founded in London by clergy and laymen, it helped local parish groups set up schools through giving advice to teachers on good educational practice and providing financial support.

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St John’s School in Wapping – founded in 1695

Funded by subscriptions and bequests from parishioners, the Movement grew rapidly and by the end of the 18th century there were 179 schools, providing education for some 7,000 children in the metropolis.

Clergymen organised annual parades and services to honour schools’ benefactors and pupils were reminded “that whatever Attainments they gain there, are all the Effects of Charity,” for which they should were to be “thankful to God and grateful to their benefactors.” And they wore badges or uniforms to distinguish them from their peers. Many schools continue to pay thanks to their founders by holding annual parades through local neighbourhoods.

As we’ve seen at Archbishop Tenison school in Croydon, aside from studying religious texts the focus was on the teaching of practical skills that would help pupils in later life. And it seems the education provided did seem to pay off. Over the course of the 18th century some 20,000 boys from charity schools in London found apprenticeships, around the same number were put to service, while others found employment at sea. Girls, while not educated in the same high numbers, also found positions in service and apprenticeships.

But while teaching skills required for later life was important, there were fears within the Church and elsewhere than education would lead to children rising above their stations. The Bishop of London was, for example, critical in 1724 of schools teaching fine writing, needlework or singing. He remarked they should avoid “teaching the Children to value themselves upon these Attainments” or anything that might set them “above the meaner and more laborious Stations and Offices of Life.”

And some were cynical of the characters that charity schools produced. In William Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty the villain, Tom Nero, is depicted wearing the cap and badge of St Giles Charity School – an establishment lost somewhere in and around where the Central Saint Giles development can be found today.

At the heart of the Charity Schools Movement and SPCK was the doctrine of the Church of England, but in the early years there was said to be a degree of cooperation with non-conformists. But by about 1715 things began to changed and those that weren’t part of the established church opened there own schools in greater numbers. Indeed, one of the key objectives of SPCK was to prevent the influence of other denominations, including Baptists, Quakers and Presbyterians, which had become more popular following the Civil War of 1651.

Today, traces of schools founded in the 18th and 19th centuries through a range of charitable means can be discovered across London. Even when buildings have been re-developed figurines depicting the original uniforms worn by pupils as a way of honouring their founders.

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St John’s School in Wapping – founded in 1695


St John’s School in Wapping was founded in 1695 and on the front of the building that remains today (constructed in 1756) are the statues of two pupils depicted in their uniforms. Although no longer a school, the separate entrances for boys and girls can both be clearly seen.

Back in Croydon, Archbishop Tenison is still going strong with some 800 pupils. Head teacher Richard Parrish told the Croydon Advertiser: “I think it is wonderful that the Archbishop of Canterbury chose in 1714 to found a school in Croydon. It all helps to put Croydon on the map.” And while SPCK may no longer be help to open new schools it is going strong as an organisation, with a particular emphasis on Christian publishing and has distributed some 30 million books since its foundation.

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