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

30 Oct

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

But this little corner of Margate deserves further exploration as Cecil Square was the first planned square to be built in a seaside resort. Landowners and businessmen collaborated here in 1769 on a scale and form that had previously only occurred in London. It was a turning point for Margate – a place that takes 1736 as its foundation year – and a significant milestone in the development of the English seaside resort for the country as a whole.

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Cecil Square

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

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

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Hawley Square

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

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

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

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

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Royal Sea Bathing Hospital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finsbury Park Art Club

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

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

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North London Central Mosque – formerly the infamous Finsbury Park mosque

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Grandly named Finsbury Park transport interchange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Natural habitats at Gillespie Park

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

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Derelict pub opposite Finsbury Park station

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

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

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Park theatre, Finsbury Park


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