Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: Bermondsey - Docks and Slums

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Southwark, and having visited Peckham, may board a Number 78 Bus from Peckham High Street to Tower Bridge. The route takes us through further residential suburbs, and over the site of Bermondsey Abbey, founded in 1082. The Abbey of Saint Saviour was a Benedictine establishment, and was dependent on the French Abbey of Cluny, one of the wealthiest and most politically influential monastic institutions in Medieval Europe. Today, only a few architectural fragments of the abbey are visible in the basement of the Lokma Restaurant, in Bermondsey Square.

Bermondsey Abbey, reconstruction drawing by Sir Walter Besant, 1894 (image is in the Public Domain).

"A Fete at Bermondsey," possibly a marriage feast, c 1579, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (image is in the Public Domain).

Alighting at Tower Bridge, we find ourselves back on the river-front, and at the southern end of one of London's most iconic landmarks, looking across the Thames towards the Tower of London. The bridge itself was built, to the then fashionable neo-Gothic design, between 1886 and 1894, as part of an ongoing effort to ease the passage of people and goods between the City of London, to the north of the river, and the Borough of Southwark, to the south. At the time of its construction, however, the "Pool of London" (the stretch of river between Tower Bridge and London Bridge) remained one of the most important elements of London as a port, hence the imperative to design a bridge that could be raised, to allow the passage of ships, and lowered, to accommodate road traffic.

Tower Bridge under construction, 1892 (image is in the Public Domain).

Tower Bridge, looking back from Shad Thames. Photo: Colin (licensed under CCA).

Strolling eastward along the river, we come to Butler's Wharf and Shad Thames, where a series of warehouses, completed in 1873, have now been converted into high-class restaurants and boutiques, with luxury apartments above. Beyond them is Saint Saviour's Dock, once owned by the monks of Bermondsey, who had a tidal mill at the point where the (now largely invisible) River Neckinger flowed into the Thames. The river's name, however, post-dates the monks (we have no idea what they would have called it): it recalls the "Devil's neck-cloth," or hangman's noose, for it was here that Eighteenth Century pirates were hanged, and their bodies exposed as a warning to others.

Shad Thames warehouses. Photo: David Iliff (license CC-BY-SA-3.0).

Saint Saviour's Dock. Photo: C.G.A. Grey (licensed under CCA).

On the other side of the wharf lay Jacob's Island, one of the most notorious of London's Nineteenth Century slums, the home of Charles Dickens's villain, Bill Sykes, and the place where he meets his untimely death.

Dickens spares us none of the details in his description:

" ... crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses,with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it - as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob's Island."

Jacob's Island, 1813 (image is in the Public Domain).

Folly Ditch, Jacob's Island, c 1840 (image is in the Public Domain).

Some decades later, however, in 1878, Edward Walford tells us of the transformation of the area:

"The foul ditch no longer pollutes the air. It has long been filled up ... there is now a good solid road ... Part of London Street, the whole of Little London Street, part of Mill Street, beside houses in Jacob Street and Hickman's Folly, have been demolished. In most of these places warehouses have taken the place of dwelling-houses. The revolting fact of many of the inhabitants of the district having no other water to drink than that which they procured from the filthy ditches is also a thing of the past. Most of the houses are now supplied with good water, and the streets are very well paved. Indeed, so great is the change for the better in the external appearance of the district generally, that a person who had not seen it since the improvements would now scarcely recognise it."

Most of Bermondsey remained an industrial area, an integral part of the working river, throughout the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century. As cargoes moved from the holds of ships into containers, however, and the Port of London shifted downstream, the districts of London that look out on the river have become so gentrified that even professional Londoners have long since been priced out of the property market. Millionaires now gaze down into clean flowing water, where once the underworld characters evoked by Dickens stared into the abyss, breathing its noxious fumes.

Butler's Wharf and Courage Brewery, 1971. Photo: Dr Neil Clayton (licensed under CCA). 

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

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: Peckham - The Growth of a Victorian Suburb

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Southwark, and having visited the remnants of the Great North Wood, extending between Sydenham and Dulwich, can board a Number 33 bus from Crescent Wood Road, heading north towards Tower Bridge. The journey takes us through a largely residential area of London, passing the Horniman Museum on the left.

The Horniman Museum. Photo: I.M. Chengappa (licensed under CCA).

Founded at the end of the Nineteenth Century by Frederick Horniman, the heir to a fortune built on the import of tea, the museum has stunning natural history and ethnographic collections, including one of the UK's most extensive collections of musical instruments from around the World. After a journey of around half an hour, we alight at Peckham Rye Station.

Until the mid-Nineteenth Century, Peckham was "a small, quiet, retired village, surrounded by fields," traces of which can still be glimpsed on Peckham Rye Common, and in Peckham Rye Park. As a child in the mid-Eighteenth Century, William Blake would often walk here from his home in Soho, and began to experience the visions that would inform his later writing and art: on one occasion, he saw the Prophet Ezekiel under a bush; and, on another, an angel in a tree.

Peckham Rye Common. Photo: Kate Tierney (licensed under CCA).

Angels, by William Blake (image is in the Public Domain).

The River Peck, in Peckham Rye Park, one of many small rivers that run beneath London's streets, largely unnoticed by modern Londoners. Photo: Rob Kam (licensed under GNU).

Stagecoaches from the south coast and Kent passed through Peckham on their way to London, escorted by armed guards, as a precaution against highwaymen. Drovers from Kent also stopped here with their livestock, and, typically, sold them here to local graziers, who would fatten them up before selling them on to City butchers (only freemen of the City were permitted to drive livestock over London Bridge).

Mural on a Peckham public house, commemorating the lives of Kentish drovers. Photo: Oxyman (licensed under CCA).

Peckham was transformed in the mid-Nineteenth Century, first by the establishment by the entrepreneur, Thomas Tilling, of a horse-drawn omnibus service connecting it to London in 1851; and, in the decades that followed, by the coming of the railways (the London, Chatham, & Dover Railway in 1865, and the London, Brighton, & South Coast Railway in 1866). The railways opened the area up to property developers, and to the growing legions of clerical workers who made their homes in the suburbs, rather than in the increasingly crowded streets of The City and Westminster.

A Tilling Omnibus. Photo: KellyASands (licensed under CCA).

Whilst the senior clerks of City banks, insurance and legal firms made their homes on the main thoroughfares once used by stagecoaches and drovers, the side-streets and alleys within a stone's throw of them housed the poorer families on whose services their wealthier neighbours depended: blacksmiths, carpenters, joiners, decorators, railway and postal workers, bus conductors, brewers, and bakers.

Charles Booth's "Poverty Map" of Lambeth & Southwark, including Peckham: streets coded in yellow and red indicate the most prosperous households; those in purple and black the poorest ones. Image: London School of Economics Booth/E/1/11 (image is in the Public Domain). 

On the 10th October, 1899, the social researcher, Ernest Aves (a colleague of Charles Booth), accompanied PC Dolby on his beat, starting on Peckham High Street. Whilst he recorded "large garden fronts" on the wider streets, he found the narrower alleys, such as Stanton Street, "dull and depressing:" the policeman explained that the street had an "indifferent reputation," with "two or three wife-beaters living in it." There were even some streets where "the police do not patrol," and "Dolby had never been up;" streets in which burglars were known to live, and in which murders had taken place; yet there were other streets nearby, occupied mainly by "conductors and drivers," with lively beer-houses and taverns.

The worst accommodation in late-Nineteenth and early-Twentieth Century Peckham was very bad indeed, and, in the 1930s, residents of Nigel Street staged a rent strike in protest at the unsanitary conditions in which their landlord expected them to live. Oswald Mosley's blackshirts tried to hijack the protest, pointing out that the landlord in question was Jewish; but the residents chased them away, insisting that their objections were to his practices as a landlord, not his ethnicity or religion.

The Peckham rent strike, 1935 (image is in the Public Domain).

Returning to Peckham Rye Station, our visitor can board a southbound Number 78 bus, for the next stage of the journey.

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

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: August

The month of August is named after the Roman Emperor, Augustus, and, whilst his image sometimes occurs in Medieval books of hours, it was not an image that any Roman would have recognised. Medieval artists depicted ancient figures, whether historical or mythological, with the clothes and attributes of their own time.

The Emperor Augustus, portrayed as a Medieval monarch. Bedford Hours, 1410-30, British Library Add. MS 18850 (image is in the Public Domain).

Calendar page for August, from the Black Hours, 1471-3, Morgan Library MS 493 (image is in the Public Domain).

It was the month during which, for most Medieval European communities, the principle harvest of cereal crops was either safely gathered in or, failing that, a serious problem had to be confronted, typically through trade. Trading partners understood this, and could be expected to adjust their prices accordingly, so everything possible would be done to ensure a successful harvest.

Some images show the harvest itself continuing into August, and this, of course, would depend upon the weather, and would vary between one region and another.

Image from the Golf Book, 1520-30, showing the harvest continuing in August. British Library, Add. MS. 24098, f 25v (image is in the Public Domain).  

More commonly, however, the images for August show the processing of grain, specifically the processes of threshing and winnowing, and the storing of the grain in granaries. In the Mediterranean lands, threshing and winnowing would be undertaken on open-air stone threshing floors, the inedible husks broken either by hand, using a flail (a tool as old as agriculture itself, and carried as a symbol of power by Egyptian Pharaohs, to indicate their sacred role in ensuring the success of the annual harvest); or with a threshing sled, a wooden implement inset with sharp flint blades, dragged back and forth across the grain either by manpower or by beasts. The crop would then be gathered up in winnowing baskets and thrown into the air: the winds carrying away the chaff; the edible grain falling back onto the threshing floor, from whence it could be gathered up into sacks to be stored, and, ultimately, taken to the miller to be turned into flour.

Image from the Bedford Hours, 1410-30, British Library Add. Ms. 18850 (image is in the Public Domain). The man on the left threshes the grain with a flail, whilst the woman on the right, representing the astrological sign of Virgo, presides over the sacks of grain.

Threshing (with flails) and winnowing, 1500-25 (image is in the Public Domain). 

Threshing and winnowing, c 1460 (image is in the Public Domain). 

A modern threshing floor on Santorini, Greece. Photo: Stas Zvrek (licensed under GNU).

Threshing with a sled, near Valencia, Spain. Photo: Pelayo 2 (licensed under GNU).

Flint blades in a threshing sled. Photo: Jose-Manuel Benito (image is in the Public Domain). 

In northern Europe, where rainfall threatened the crop even at this late stage, threshing and winnowing were carried out indoors, in special barns with their long axes built at right angles to the prevailing wind. Opposed pairs of large doors ensured a through-draft of wind, allowing the grain and chaff to be separated in much the same way.

Threshing in a barn, 1500-25 (image is in the Public Domain).

Tithe barn at Bradford-Upon-Avon, c 1340. Photo: RODW (image is in the Public Domain).

The interior of the tithe barn at Bradford-Upon-Avon. Photo: Nessino (licensed under CCA).

Not until all the grain was safely stored could people breathe a sigh of relief, and turn their attentions to celebration and recreation.

Scene of falconry, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-16, Musee Conde (image is in the Public Domain). The castle in the background is the Chateau d'Etampes.

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