Sunday, 28 July 2019

The Streets of Old Westminster: The Victoria Embankment - Sanitation and Underground Railways

A visitor to London, exploring the City of Westminster, and having walked along The Strand, can walk through Victoria Embankment Gardens from York Water Gate, and cross the A3211 onto the riverside. We are here immersed in a cityscape in the strictest sense: nothing about the Thames here is "natural," apart from the water itself; in fact, it is very largely the work of one man, Joseph Bazalgette (1819-91), whose monument is to be found here.

The Victoria Embankment in c 1896, Hallwyl Museum (Sweden), image is in the Public Domain.

The Victoria Embankment in c 1930 (image is in the Public Domain).

Joseph Bazalgette, by Locke & Whitfield Photographic Studios, National Portrait Gallery (image is in the Public Domain).

Bazalgette was an engineer, who had cut his teeth on railway construction projects connecting London to the provinces. In 1858, however, he was given a very different problem to solve. The Thames and its tributaries had, since Roman times, served as an open sewer. As the city grew rapidly throughout the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries, increasing volumes of waste were channeled into it. An invisible threshold was crossed in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition: for the first time in British history, more people now lived in its towns and cities, than in the countryside. Utilitarian reformers had, in some instances, accidentally made the situation worse. Many Londoners had used a flushing toilet for the first time on their visit to the exhibition (literally "spending a penny" for the privilege): the reformers now encouraged them to install them at home, and to dispense with cess-pits (which Londoners had used for centuries), in favour of new public sewers, emptying directly into the Thames. Flushing toilets without mains sewers was a disastrous combination, since it more than doubled the volume of toxic waste to be removed. The result was the "Great Stink" of 1858, when conditions became unbearable, even for MPs and peers in the Palace of Westminster, but this, itself came in the wake of major cholera epidemics in 1832, 1848, 1849, and 1854, which, between them, had carried off hundreds of thousands of Londoners.

"Monster Soup," 1828, Wellcome Collection (Image is in the Public Domain). In fact, the presence of such creatures as are shown here would be indications of a healthy estuarine ecosystem: no microscope of the time was powerful enough to show the bacteria, let alone the viruses, that actually threaten human health.

Cartoon of 1858, showing Michael Faraday presenting his card to Father Thames (Image is in the Public Domain). In fact, Faraday, the go-to man of science for so many practical challenges, played little part in finding the solutions to this problem.

Cartoon of 1858 (Image is in the Public Domain).

Punch cartoon of 1858 (image is in the Public Domain).

A young Venetian woman, aged 23, before and after contracting cholera, 1831, Wellcome Collection (image is in the Public Domain). 

Bazalgette, working for the Metropolitan Board of Works, proposed an ambitious solution. He did not know that cholera was caused by contaminated water (few, in his time, even suspected this to be the case), but he did know that people should not be drinking water contaminated by human excrement. A network of sewers were required, with two main channels, one following the northern, and the other following the southern bank of the Thames. The only sensible place to put these, without demolishing large numbers of expensive buildings, was in the space between the high and low tide-marks. The river was thus narrowed and deepened, with the additional advantage that floods became far less frequent.

Bazlgette's sewer system, taking waste far to the east of London. Image: Philg88 (licensed under CCA). 

The construction of sewers at Old Ford, Bow, in 1859 (image is in the Public Domain).

Side-sewer carrying the River Fleet (between Westminster and the City of London). Photo: Matt Brown (licensed under CCA).

The construction of the Victoria Embankment, c 1865 (image is in the Public Domain).

The scale of Bazalgette's ambition was not limited to sanitation. "We're only going to do this once," he insisted, "and there's always the unexpected." He therefore insisted that the pipes be double the diameter that most other engineers thought prudent. The "unexpected" included the astonishing growth of London's population since the mid-Nineteenth Century, and his sewers do still serve us today, although London's authorities, and Bazalgette's engineering successors, are now, one hundred and sixty one years on, building a replacement network. The "unexpected" was one thing, but what Bazalgette did anticipate, and make specific provision for, was no less remarkable. Since he was, necessarily, involved in land reclamation, he made space for an underground railway (today's District and Circle Line), and for services as yet unplanned (water and gas supply pipes, telephone and electricity cables - you may well be reading this courtesy of a fibre-optic cable installed in Bazalgette's "additional" tunnel for unexpected things).

Cross-section of the Victoria Embankment at Charing Cross, showing the railway tunnel (lower left), sewer (lower right), and service tunnel (upper right). Image is in the Public Domain. 

Tube Map of 1908, with the District Line shown in green, by Dodo van den Bergen (image is in the Public Domain). 

The District Railway at Charing Cross, 1914, by Charles Sharland (image is in the Public Domain).

Bazalgette's scheme, starting in 1858, required 10,000 labourers to build eight miles of intercepting sewers, and 1100 mils of street sewers. By the time that Claude Monet arrived in London in 1871, as a refugee from the Franco-Prussian War, the work was largely complete, and London had, not only a fully functioning sewer system, but an underground railway; life free from cholera; and an elegant water-front to match the finest in Europe.

The Thames below Westminster, by Claude Monet, c 1871. Image: National Gallery (Public Domain).

Bazalgette's memorial, on the Victoria Embankment. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

"Cleopatra's Needle," on the Victoria Embankment. Erected by PharaohThutmose III, at Heliopolis, in c 1450 BC, it was given to Britain by Egypt in 1819, to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon, and was erected here in 1878. Photo: Ethan Doyle White (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

The Streets of Old Westminster: Lundenwic and The Strand

A visitor to London, exploring the City of Westminster, and having walked along Whitehall, can turn to the east and walk along The Strand, passing Charing Cross Railway Station on the right. This was the main street of early Saxon Lundenwic, the trading port that replaced the Roman city of Londinium, which had been abandoned following the collapse of Roman administration in Britain in the early Fifth Century AD. Whereas Roman ships, sailing to and from the Mediterranean, tied up at stone wharves in the old city, the very different vessels that plied the "Whale Roads" of the early Middle Ages, connecting Lundenwic to the markets of the North Sea and the Baltic, were beached on strands. "The Strand" was, literally, the strand, in the sense of a beach, before the Thames was embanked in the Nineteenth Century. Lundenwic, a settlement of wooden buildings, extended from Saint Martin-in- the-Fields in the west to Saint Clement Danes in the east: traces of it have been found in archaeological excavations over the past hundred years, and can be seen in the Museum of London.

Map of Lundenwic, Museum of London (Image is in the Public Domain).

Nothing of Lundenwic (other than the course of The Strand itself) is visible on the ground today. There is, similarly, little to see of most of the opulent great houses that, throughout the Middle Ages and into the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, lined the road that connected the Royal courts of Westminster and Whitehall to Fleet Street and The City: including the London residences of the Dukes of Lancaster; the Earls of Essex and Arundel; and the Bishops of Durham, Exeter, Carlisle, Chester, Worcester and Bath. The grandest of these palaces was the Savoy, which was owned by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, until it was destroyed in the "Peasants' Revolt" of 1381: the name, alone, survives as The Savoy Hotel, which remains one of London's most exclusive addresses.

The Strand in 1822, showing Saint Mary-le-Strand and Saint Clement-Danes behind, Museum of London (Image is in the Public Domain).

The Strand in 1593 (the Norden Map). British Library (Image is in the Public Domain).

Arundel House from the north, by Wenceslas Hollar, 1647 (Image is in the Public Domain).

Durham House in 1806, by John Thomas Smith (Image is in the Public Domain).

Plan of the Savoy Palace in 1736, from W.J. Loftie (1878) Memorial of the Savoy (Image is in the Public Domain).

The one palace that can still be visited is Somerset House, originally built by Edward Seymour, first Earl of Hertford, and later Duke of Somerset, in 1549. It was sequestered by the Crown, following Seymour's execution in 1552, and subsequently occupied by Anne of Denmark (the wife of James VI and I); Henrietta Maria (the wife of Charles I); and the Parliamentary General, Thomas Fairfax. In its current, neo-Classical, incarnation, it was designed by Sir William Chambers, with new wings being added in 1831 and 1856.

Somerset House, by Jan Kip, 1722 (Image is in the Public Domain).

The terrace of Somerset House, by Canaletto, 1750 (Image is in the Public Domain).

"Old money" gave way to "new" in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, and, by the mid-Nineteenth Century, The Strand was very much the domain of entrepreneurs, whose primary business was popular entertainment. One such was Carlo Gatti, an impoverished Swiss immigrant who came to London in 1847, and sold chestnuts and waffles from street stalls. He went on to introduce the ice cream to British consumers for the first time, selling one-lick portions in wafer shells from a stall in Hungerford Market.

Old Hungerford Market, 1805 (Image is in the Public Domain).

A vendor of ice-cream, 1870s, British Library (Image is in the Public Domain).

The market was badly damage by a fire in 1854, but Gatti was insured. He built a music hall with the proceeds of his pay-out, and sold the site to the South-Eastern Railway Company in 1862 at an enormous profit (Charing Cross Station now stands on this site). He opened a second music hall, "Gatti's in the Road," in 1865; and a third, "Gatti's in the Arches," in 1867. In 1871, he returned to Switzerland, a millionaire.

Katie Lawrence at Gatti's, by Walter Sickert, c 1903 (Image is in the Public Domain).

Poster for Gatti's (Image is in the Public Domain).

Another of these entertainment tycoons was Sir Richard d'Oyly Carte, who leased the Opera Comique, off The Strand, in 1874, and who went on to promote the works of William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. Like Gatti, he reinvested his early profits, opening the Savoy Theatre in 1881: with seating for 1300 people, this was the first public building in the World to be lit by electricity. With the profits from The Mikado, in 1889, he opened the Savoy Hotel, on the site of John of Gaunt's old palace, employing the dream-team of Cesar Ritz as Manager, and Auguste Escoffier as Head Chef. D'Oyly Carte had to fire both for lining their pockets at his expense, but they did not remain in disgrace for long, going on to found the Ritz Hotel.

The Savoy Theatre, 1881 (Image is in the Public Domain).

To the east of Charing Cross Station, Villiers Street slopes down towards the Thames (it is named after George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham (a favourite of James VI and I, and subsequently an adviser to his son, Charles I). Watergate Walk leads off to the east, and brings us to York Watergate, which gave access to Villiers's palace from the river, the preferred means of transport for the wealthier residents of Seventeenth Century London. 

The York Water Gate (1626). Photo: Mike Peel (, licensed under CCA.

The Adelpi from the River, by Henry Pether, c 1850, Museum of London (Image is in the Public Domain).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 13 - "The Giant O'Brien," by Hilary Mantel

London's seasonal fairs, of which Bartholomew Fair was the best known, had, since Medieval times, been a focus for public entertainment, as well as social interaction and commercial transactions. Storytellers and performing bears, jugglers, musicians, and fortune tellers, all vied for the attentions of stall-holders and revelers. Later, as "London" became more than just "The City," and as burgeoning theatres and shopping arcades attracted increasing numbers of people to "The West End," entrepreneurs from across the British Isles, and from further afield, began to think in terms of "curiosities" that they could "exhibit" for the entertainment of an eager (and sometimes gullible) public.

Throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, there were "sapient pigs," trained to perform calculations, spell out words, and even tell fortunes, by picking up cards with their mouths; "mermaids," created by stitching together the desiccated torsos of monkeys with the tails of fish; and a whole host of bearded ladies, hermaphrodites, and "freaks of nature."

Advertisement for "Toby the Sapient Pig," 1817 (image is in the Public Domain).

Often suffering from disabilities or serious illnesses, the living "exhibits" were mercilessly exploited for the profit of others. Some "exhibitions" were overtly racist, as in the case of Sara Baartmans ("the Hottentot Venus"), a woman from southern Africa, who was exhibited in London and Paris between 1810 and 1815.

Caricature by William Heath (1810), of Sara Baartman, with the politicians, Richard Sheridan (in green), and Lord Grenville (image is in the Public Domain).

Charles Byrne (1761-83), the "Irish Giant," was born in County Tyrone, and arrived in London in 1782. He was 7'7" (2.31 metres) tall, the result (we now know) of the pituitary tumour that would take his life just a year later. He was exhibited at Spring Garden-gate, Piccadilly, and Charing Cross, and, on his death, his body was acquired, contrary to his own wishes (he had asked to be buried at sea), by the surgeon, John Hunter. Despite recent attempts to secure a burial for his remains in accordance with his wishes, his skeleton is still on display in the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields (the remains of Sara Baartman, by contrast, were returned to South Africa for burial).

Charles Byrne (centre), flanked by the Knipe brothers (twin giants), by John Kay, National Portrait Gallery D14755 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Hunterian Museum, with Charles Byrne's skeleton at the end. Photo: Paul Dean (StoneColdCrazy) - licensed under GNU.

John Hunter, portrait by John Jackson (1815), after a lost original (1786) by Sir Joshua Reynolds: National Portrait Gallery 77 (image is in the Public Domain).

Hilary Mantel's novel, The Giant O'Brien is based on Byrne's life story, but, by changing the name, she gives herself free license to invent the many details that history has not remembered about the real man (we know almost nothing of Byrne's background, character, or life in London beyond his public appearances).

In the novel, the life-stories of the giant, Charles O'Brien, and that of the surgeon, John Hunter, are juxtaposed. Both are outsiders in London, but, whilst the dour Scot is a calculating man of science; the Irish giant is a man steeped in traditional story-telling and folklore, a generous and engaging character with an original perspective on London life. Whether this reflects the personality of the real Charles Byrne is open to question (he is unlikely to have had much learning of any kind, and may have suffered from mental impairment as a result of his condition), but what is certain is that London in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries was a meeting place for people from many different backgrounds, and with sharply contrasting outlooks on the world.

"London is like the sea and the gallows. It refuses none. Sometimes on the journey, trapped in the ship's stink and heave, they had talked about the premises they would have at journeys end. They should be commodious, Vance said, and in a fashionable neighbourhood, central and well-lit, on a broad thoroughfare where the carriages of the gentry can turn without difficulty. 'My brother has a lodging in St Clement's Lane,' Claffey said, 'I don't know if it's commodious.' Vance blew out through his lips. 'Nest of beggars,' he said. 'As to your perquisites and embellishments, Charlie, they say a pagoda is the last word in fashion'  ... 'Will you have a story?' the Giant soothed them. For the time must be passed, must be passed" ... The Giant did not stop to ask what kind of story they would like, for they were contentious, like fretful children, and were in no position to know what was good for them. 'One day,' he began, the son of the King of Ireland journeyed to the east to find a bride.' 'Where east?' Vance asked, 'East London?' 'Albania,' the Giant said. 'Or far Cathay.'" 

"Seventeen forty-eight saw John Hunter, a set-jawed red-head astride a sway-backed plodder, heading south towards the stench of tanneries and soap-boilers. He came to London across Finchley Common, with the gibbeted corpses of villains groaning into the wind ... At the top of Highgate Hill he came to the Gatehouse Tavern, and observed London laid out before him. The evening was fine and the air mild." 

"London is ringed by fire, by ooze. Men with ladders carry pitch-soaked ropes in the street, and branched globes of light sprout fro the houses. Pybus thinks they have come to a country where they do not have a moon, but Vance is sure they will see it presently, and so they do, drowned in a muddy puddle in Chandos Street." 

"That summer the Giant grew rich. He washed in Castille soap, and made the purchase of some decanters. His followers ate green peas and strawberries. Joe Vance played with the writing set, and Pybus, Claffey, and Jankin haunted the skittle-alleys, the cock-fighting, the prize-fighting, the dog-fighting, and the bull-baiting. 'If we go on so,' said Claffey, grinning, 'we will have tamboured waistcoats like the quality, and silver buckles to our shoes.' 'What do you mean, if we go on so/ I am not likely to shrink.'

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

How Art Began? Antony Gormley on Prehistoric Art

The British sculptor, Antony Gormley, in a recent television programme (available on BBC I-Player until the end of February), explored the question of how art began, among some of the earliest human hunter-gatherer groups during the Pleistocene era (between 2.6 million and 11.7 thousand years ago). Like the exploration of the same topic by the German film-director, Werner Herzog, in his documentary, "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams", his viewpoint is an intensely personal one: that of an artist, confronting the work of his fellow artists (albeit across a chasm spanning tens of millennia); rather than that of an archaeologist or prehistorian, trying to make sense of "Palaeolithic art," alongside other categories of material evidence. Whilst Herzog's exploration was of a specific site (the Chauvet Cave, in the French valley of the Ardeche), Gormley, refreshingly, takes a truly Global perspective, travelling through France and Spain, and on to Australia, by way of Indonesia, taking in, along the way, some of the most important recent discoveries in his field of interest.

Antony Gormley and I are separated in age by just fifteen years, and, early in our careers, we both undertook journeys through Europe, alighting (it would seem from the glimpses of his photo album) at many of the same prehistoric sites. His journey took place at the end of his training at the Slade School of Art; whereas my various journeys happened before, during, and after my archaeological studies at Cambridge; so it would be unsurprising if we were seeking answers to different questions (although he had previously followed the same course at Cambridge that I would later follow, and would surely have been taught by some of the same people).

Intriguingly for a sculptor, Gormley has almost nothing to say about Palaeolithic sculpture (there is plenty of it, in ivory, bone, and stone, and some of the finest pieces featured in the British Museum's recent "Ice Age Art" exhibition), focusing instead on the paintings and engravings found on the walls of caves, and on outcrops of rock. His journey begins, unsurprisingly, in the French valley of the Dordogne, at the site of Les Combarelles, which featured in my youthful "Grand Tour," as it did in his.

The cave of Les Combarelles. Photo: Ethan Doyle White (licensed under CCA).

Engraving of a lion, Les Combarelles. Photo: Heinrich Wendel (licensed under CCA).

The cave contains more than six hundred paintings and engravings, made by hunter-gatherers between thirteen and eleven thousand years ago. For Gormley, it is "a cathedral of memory, but also of joy in living things," and reflects the timeless concern of the artist with the question: "what does it feel like to be alive now." He continues to the nearby cave of Font-de-Gaume, where the art is seventeen thousand year old. "It's the act of drawing that's the thing," he concludes, "and maybe it came, and maybe it didn't." We must, he insists, "give up on the idea of the hairy caveman being a brute," but I imagine that he must have given up on such ideas, as I had, before beginning his studies, or we would neither of us have made the early-career "pilgrimages" that we did.

Reindeer depicted on the wall of Fond-de-Gaume. Image: H. Breuil, 1912 (image is in the Public Domain).

At Pech-Merle, he meets the French prehistorian, Michel Lorblanchet, who has undertaken an experimental reconstruction of some of the painted works.

Hand-stencil from Pech-Merle. Photo: French Ministry of Culture, PA00094994 (image is in the Public Domain).

Horses depicted at Pech-Merle. Photo: Kersti Nebelsiek (image is in the Public Domain).

Lorblanchet considers sites such as Pech-Merle, Font-de-Gaume, and Les Combarelles as "Temples of Nature," and he is surely influenced, here, by his Eighteenth Century compatriot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who romanticised the status of hunter-gatherers as existing in an idyllic "state of nature." Rousseau's vision, in turn, goes back to the Classical ideas of the Greek poet, Hesiod, and the Roman Ovid:

"No cities were yet ringed round with deep, precipitous earthworks; long straight trumpets and curved bronze horns never summoned to battle ... but nations were free to practice the gentle arts of peace. The Earth was equally free and at rest, untouched by the hoe, unscathed by the plough-share, supplying all needs from its natural resources. Content to enjoy the food that required no painful producing, men simply gathered arbutus fruit and mountain strawberries ..." (Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by David Raeburn, Penguin Classics).

This is unlikely to have been the view of an Ice Age forager-artist, standing with her daughters looking down on the valley of the Lot, or the Dordogne.

At Niaux, in the French Pyrenees, Gormley encounters "a very different kind of imagery." It reminds him of the work of Picasso, and, as he explains, he does not care for Picasso "because he was a predator." For him, this art is full of egotism, and obsessed with death, infused with "our species sense of superiority, and the right to end the lives of other creatures." He sees in it "the beginning of the end" of a world view based on a appreciation of the human role within nature, yet its artists lived between twelve and fourteen thousand years ago, and may well have been the contemporaries of those at Les Combarelles. Perhaps, in his own terms, Gormley has simply encountered an individual artist for whom he does not care?

Bison depicted at Niaux. Photo: HTO (image is in the Public Domain).

The journey continues into Spain, where Gormley visits the site of La Cueva del Castillo. The art here is, at least superficially, similar to some of that at Pech-Merle, but the surprise comes with the dating: the hand-stencils here go back some forty thousand, eight hundred years, meaning that a wider chasm separates its artists from those of Niaux or Les Combarelles than separates them from contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, or Antony Gormley himself.

Paintings in the Cueva del Castillo. Photo: Government of Cantabria (licensed under CCA).

Hand-stencils in the Cueva del Castillo. Photo: Miguel Anguel de Arribas (licensed under CCA).

This poses further questions. Gormley was presumably taught at Cambridge, as I was, that the practice of art was unique to fully modern humans, our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens. Yet the dates from El Castillo, and other sites in Spain (some going back more than sixty thousand years) raise the likelihood that art was being produced by some of the other human species (including Neanderthals) with whom our ancestors shared the Earth over a period of millennia (most modern Europeans, in any case, share a proportion of Neanderthal DNA, showing that the two species not only interbred, but that the offspring were fertile, and some of them were, themselves, our ancestors).

Further surprises (at least for those who have not been following the most recent discoveries at conferences, or via social media) come from further afield. At Petta Kare, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, hand stencils remarkably like those from El Castillo and Pech-Merle have been found to date back forty thousand years; and the site itself seems to have continued in use for more than a millennium, with later artists, around thirty thousand years ago, adding representations of the babirusa, a native wild pig (images not publicly available, although they are shown in Gormley's film).

Hand-stencils from Petta Kare. Photo: Cahyo Ramadhani (licensed under CCA).

In Australia, the dating evidence is, for the moment, more ambiguous, but the earliest art may date back as far as sixty thousand years. Here again, however, we encounter the restless ghosts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ovid, and Hesiod; which haunt not the sacred places of the Aboriginal Australians, but rather the deepest recesses of our own European imaginations. Modern Aboriginals, some of them artists themselves, are presented as the direct inheritors of this ancient tradition, but can this be any more true than to see Antony Gormley as standing in a direct line of succession from the unnamed masters (or, indeed, mistresses) of Pech-Merle?

Human figures from Kimberley, Western Australia. Photo: Tim JN1 (licensed under CCA).

Aboriginals are not "survivors" from the Palaeolithic (except in the sense that we all are), clinging to a tradition that the rest of us abandoned more than ten centuries ago, but, like us, inventors and innovators of their own dynamic culture. Antony Gormley is, I suspect, very likely to be proven right in his belief that we would find early prehistoric art in other regions of the world (in Africa and India, for example), "if only we looked hard enough." In the course of this looking, we might well discover that the human concern with "leaving a trace," which we see alike in the surviving works of the World's earliest artists, and in those of contemporary artists around the World, is written into the DNA, not only of our species (Homo sapiens sapiens), but of an entire genus (Homo), of which we happen to be the only surviving representatives.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.