Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Ragged School Museum

46-50 Copperfield Road, London E3 4RR
Thursday February 27 2015

We hoped Mary was safely in Hong Kong and well away from the persistent drizzle that accompanied us today on our trip to Tower Hamlets (Overground to Shadwell and the 339
and a short walk along Ben Johnson Road to the Victoria Bridge over the Regents Canal ).
We stopped to admire the contrast between the impressive newish builds now lining the canal sides and what looked like an old warehouse or factory on the opposite bank not knowing until we got round to the front – that is the Copperfield Road not canal side – that this older building is in fact The Ragged School Museum.

Staffed by enthusiastic volunteers, the Museum is only open two days a week and its displays fall into three distinct sections. The ground floor deals with the history of the building which has seen many uses, each in its own way indicative of the times. The building started life as a depot or warehouse for lime – although Limehouse down the road got its name from lime oasts or kilns as in quicklime/cement it appears we are here talking about limes, those little green citrus fruits that were ‘prescribed’ as the antidote to scurvy so prevalent amongst sailors. When it seemed easier to ship the limes straight out again (and Jo remembered the canal boats on the Grand Union heading for Roses’ Lime Factory) the building was taken over by Dr. Barnardo.

An Irishman who was training to be a doctor and hoped to become an overseas missionary, he was so appalled at the poverty he saw around him in Victorian London he concentrated on trying to better the life-chances of the children of the poor, many of them resident in this part of London. When the Copperfield Road warehouse building became vacant he set up the eponymous Free School in 1877, having already run two other ‘free schools’. The 1870 Education Act, the first legislation to address and enshrine the right to primary education, put a duty on local school boards to provide schools where none existed. It would be some years yet until these duties were passed to firstly the London County Council (in 1904) and then the Inner London Education Authority – two wonderful bodies which surely deserve a museum of their own in one of the London School Board buildings.

But back to the Ragged School which used this triangular shaped site for both infants (the part where the museum is now) and – where the angle opened out – for separate boys and girls Junior departments. To say they were oversubscribed is an understatement, with classes regularly topping 100-200 pupils. The curriculum was restricted to reading, writing and arithmetic with possibly a little history or geography, but certainly stuff that could be learned by heart and not up for discussion.  The school ran until 1908 when an inspection declared the premises inadequate (by now the LCC was building school to a design). The building reverted to factory use – eventually for the manufacture of very smart motorcycle leathers (what today would call a niche market) until the Museum began restoration in the Eighties. 

It is the first floor display that most visitors come to admire. Here you will find the recreation of an old-fashioned classroom complete with chalk blackboard and two-seater wooden desks with inkwell holes. I hesitate to put a date on these as frankly my entire Primary School Learning (1950s) was done in a class of 49 in exactly such a setting and Jo remembered starting her teaching in a similarly furnished classroom. (The link is a short film.) 

  – I thought life had moved on when the white board replaced the ‘chalk and talk’ stage but doubtless nowadays one teaches through a computer. We reminisced about being the ‘ink monitor’ – allowed to refill the inkwells from the little metal watering can and go home with blue fingers. Or you could be the Register monitor and ‘lose a few minutes’ in the corridor between class and staff rooms (Jo) or not (Linda), or as chalk monitor you could get to lay out the new chalks  and admire them  before they broke (or were chucked at inattentive pupils) or even sneak one home.. The educator was preparing to settle a real primary age class to give them the whole experience (boys separate from girls) so we did not linger but did admire the other artefacts they had collected to give the Ragged School a home context as well. There was a tiny ‘range’ kitchen complete with dresser, rag rug and mangle and washboard for the weekly wash (remember all the water had to be heated). Cupboards boasted old-fashioned pre-electric kitchen gadgets and a few favourite branded goods.
Talking of monitors as we were, the school would have had over 100 pupils per class and only 1 teacher – in order to get through the curriculum the teacher would have selected some brighter students and put them to work teaching in smaller groups. Not ideal but better than no education at all.

Back downstairs, where the first room looks at the history of the building and the early days of universal education, the back room is devoted to a history of Tower Hamlets and its constituent areas – called of course Tower Hamlets because it houses the Tower of London  (see November blog) at its heart and the rest were small hamlets scattered around – doubtless to serve the court  and garrison at the Tower. The room devotes a couple of display boards to each of the different parts of the borough: Bethnal Green, Whitechapel and Spitalfields, Stepney & Mile End, Bow and Bromley by Bow, Wapping to Limehouse and Poplar and the Isle of Dogs – many of them now stops on the Central line and very familiar to us from our bus travelling days. Each area has played and continues to play a vital part in the development of London – the old docks with their refuges for seamen now changed into the new financial district, the old Jewish East End of the Rag Trade now home to different incomers still using the old markets, the Old Bryant & May factory which saw the match girls’ strike now a trendy housing development, the back streets of Spitalfields once home to weavers and a hospice now a destination for trendsetters. And not forgetting the politicized people of Cable Street…

The poverty and dense population of the East End /Tower Hamlets has likewise attracted a large number of philanthropists and do-gooders, all intent on bringing enlightenment, relief, art and sometimes religion to the people – these have included the Barnetts of Toynbee Hall , Maria Dickin of the PDSA  Sylvia Pankhurst who fought for women’s  rights, the Booths of the Salvation Army and of course Dr Thomas Barnardo who had a truly integrated and far-sighted vision – not only did he provide education for many through this and other Ragged Schools, he looked after the orphaned and destitute children foreshadowing today’s children’s social care, and even saw that once educated the young people needed meaningful employment and guided them towards ‘service’ or a range of manual occupations. The school even hosted evening club sessions for the many local factory girls. A true pioneer.

While the section covering the History of Tower Hamlets has less space and exhibits at its disposal than the more spacious Hackney Museum (see January) we were overall very impressed with the rich heritage of Tower Hamlets and the enthusiasm with which the staff shared this with visitors, children and adults alike.

 The Collecting boxes..

The downstairs cafe...

Friday, 20 February 2015

Leighton House Museum

12 Holland Park Road 
London W8 4PX
Wednesday February 18th 2015

After three weeks spent  underground courtesy of Brunel, Florence Nightingale and Churchill it was good to be above ground even though conservation levels of lighting mean daylight is only permitted in one or two rooms. Jo and her friend Pam had arrived via the Overground to Kensington Olympia, whereas I had finished my Jubilee Line trip with a ride on the Roastmaster Route 9 which takes a scenic line from Green Park. No photography allowed so you will have to make do with what is available via links and my purple prose. Here is the Museum’s own  website.

The outside of the house is less than exciting and is that typical red brick with white stone trimming favoured in this part of Kensington. Lord Leighton, with a substantial private income as well as what the art earned him, had it built specifically to his designs (underground swimming pool anyone?) which included a tower, studio and library. He was president of the Royal Academy and entertained the like-minded and influential of his day. Unlike many properties nowadays there is little mention of the army of servants needed to keep the ceramic collection dust-free.  

It is run by Kensington & Chelsea who do make a charge to visit but with the usual concessions  plus those for Art Pass holders  and National Trust members. The information and booklets provided – large and small print – is exemplary.

Our visit also coincided with a special exhibition showcasing the Perez Simon  Collection a Spanish born,  Mexico resident,  telecommunications Billionaire connoisseur collector (phew)  and thanks to him many works of art whose painters would have been frequent visitors to the house are now exhibited again in the UK. If you are an aficionado of the Pre-Raphaelites (so there’s a Rossetti, a Millais and a Burne-Jones and the latter’s pupil, John Melhuish Strudwick whose work we quite rated) and the later Aesthetic movement painters then this is the place for you though by the end Jo and I were somewhat saturated with too many damsels in diaphanous dresses dancing around in a variety of ‘exotic’ locations, usually Biblical, Classical or occasionally Arthurian. Sometimes they came with their own poems, the artists having been inspired by the works of Tennyson and Meredith. The flimsy clothes that Leighton in particular painted have a gauzy, and not quite tawdry magnificence which in the end earned him a lot of money, popularity and a peerage, and doubtless hung over the mantels of eminent Victorians; not that they thought of themselves as such.   Though as Jo said while Leighton and some of his followers were painting ladies, France had moved on to Impressionism and in the early 20th Century saw the rise of other UK artists such as Nash perhaps.

Without photos I will not dwell on  the paintings  other than to tell you the strange story of the ‘Roses of Heliogabolus’ which is showcased in a room of its own, honoured with a bespoke perfume devised by Jo Malone for the occasion so the experience becomes a multi-sense one.  Heliogabolous was a young debauched Roman emperor, who ascended to power thanks to the machinations of his mother and behaved much like a combination of Nero and Caligula – the picture shows him entertaining some ‘ladies of the night’ (not unlike some disgraced French politicians) and other guests and then smothering them – to death – in flowers. The story cites violets but Alma-Tadema chose roses and had a supply imported from the South of France so he could paint them accurately.

It’s very pink.

The painting was originally bought by Sir John Aird, founder of the Scottish engineering firm who (apart from a musical quartet of rather embarrassed musicians) is one of the few males to feature in the exhibition.  

The real joy of this visit is the house itself, and specifically the downstairs Arab Hall and upstairs Studio complete with a huge North facing window – having worried that  Dorothy Dene should have somewhere warm to change into and out of her gauzy garments – she was the long time muse of Lord Leighton and was at least rewarded with a substantial legacy on his death – I was relieved to learn from this Guardian Article that indeed she did, as well as her own “discreet” (i.e. don’t scandalise the other visitors ) staircase.

The main glory of the house is the downstairs – though Arab/Moorish inspired with possibly a Pompeii type floor Lord Leighton had clearly collected an impressive number of Iznik tiles and you will know how fond I am of those from our visit to the Florence Nightingale Museum , where they were used as ‘set-dressing’ . Apart from the floral ones there are beautifully calligraphed tablets (scripts from the Qu’ran) set over the doors. Here you find the real thing in abundance. Each fireplace and door frame is unique and halfway up the stairs a glass cabinet with a series of antique Iznik plates each more lovely than the next. To complete the suite of downstairs rooms there is additional tiling from Walter Crane and William de Morgan – reminding us we need to visit ‘his’ museum in Wandsworth.

There is a modest bedroom and the Silk Room also. Some other curioisites include a replica of the couch used in many of the paintings, with classical legs one end and Egyptian ones the other, and the papers pertaining to Lord Leighton’s commission in the Artists’ Rifles – fellow members included Millais – and hard to believe this – Rossetti: not one for taking orders I would have thought.

In need of something more robust we left after an interesting two hours; a worthwhile visit but
something of an ‘acquired taste’ we did not entirely share…

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Churchill War Rooms

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Clive Steps, King Charles St
Whitehall SW1A 2AQ

Today was a real treat for me, as I returned to my former work place, accompanied by Mary, Linda and my British Library friend Molly.  I was hoping they would enjoy the amazing warren of small 1940s rooms and the technological splendour of the Churchill Museum as much as I always have, and they did.

But there was an even bigger treat in store as the Director, my old boss, took us into the Cabinet Room itself, and Molly was able to sit where Churchill sat for the 115 meetings of the War Cabinet which took place down here.  We thought about the atmosphere, with Churchill's much-chewed cigar smoke blending with Attlee's pipe and the many cigarettes to make a really choking blend. 

Audio guides are included in the entry price, and come in many languages, but my long suffering colleagues agreed that I should be their guide instead.

We decided (well, all right, I decided) that we would look round the rooms first and then go into the Churchill Museum afterwards, although the entry to the Churchill Museum comes near the start of the route.  So we walked past the dingy (and now safely glassed in) staircase down to the sub-basement.  During the War, this was known as the Dock, for its grim ambience of poor air, rats and other vermin and of course the smell of the Elsans, which were the nearest the War Rooms got to plumbing.  There is one, clean and hygienic, on display.  Those of us who used to go camping in the olden days did not need this reminder....
We saw where the Slab has been exposed for all to admire:  as the threat of bombing intensified, large amounts of concrete were pumped into the area above the War Rooms.  The extra weight necessitated wooden bracing pillars to be installed, thus reducing the space in the rooms even further.

We turned into the small suite of rooms reserved for some of the more senior people, passing the accommodation for the PM's detectives, with its narrow bunk beds, and then past the rooms of Brendan Bracken, Tommy Thompson and others, to reach the Churchills' dining room, and Mrs Churchill's bedroom.  (When I was a Learning Officer down here, I used to explain to school students that people of 'that class' normally had separate bedrooms).  Mrs Churchill did not sleep down here, preferring the Number 10 Annexe, an apartment in the building above.  We also passed the kitchen, before emerging into the corridor, to continue our tour.

The Imperial War Museum drilled a second corridor, parallel to the original, to make visitor flow possible, so we walked past the little BBC studio, and various rooms for typists and duty officers, to reach the HQ of the Home Defence Forces. Towards the end of the war, with the threat of invasion merely a nasty memory, they were moved out, but the IWM decided to fix the date of the rooms as at 1940.  On the audio guide you can hear a quotation from Alan Brooke, who was absolutely convinced that Hitler would invade. 

Next comes the Camp Commandant's HQ, with the many keys of his domain securely behind perspex.

This brought us to one of the oddest sights in this odd place: anxiety about the impact of a bomb falling into the stairwell of the great building above caused the authorities to fill an entire room with concrete.  Drilling a passage way through it in t he 1980s proved to be a great deal harder than anyone might have predicted, and pieces of the cores drilled out were in use as door stops in several offices back in my day, early this century.  The corridor brings you to the operational heart of the War Rooms, the Map Room.

Staffed day and night, by officers from the three services, mostly 'dug out' of retirement like the Royal Marine Guards and orderlies who ran the place, the Map Room was an information hub.  Information was marked onto maps with knitting yarn and coloured pins; graphs were drawn by hand, and the phones rang constantly as news came in.  There was also a vacuum tube system for pieces of paper, and a rack of rifles, in case the basement came under attack.

The final room of the tour is the great man's bedroom, complete with the curtains which covered the maps to ensure he got some sleep, and BBC microphones sitting on the desk.  It was from here that Churchill broadcast one speech, in September 1940.

And then you are out into the shop, quite possibly feeling that you have had your money's worth.  

You have, however, barely begun. Because, since early this century, this basement has been the home of a comprehensive and extraordinary Museum of the Life of Winston Churchill. The Museum is accessed through a splendid exhibition about life in the bunker, featuring biographies of many of the people who worked down here, and screens showing several of them recounting their memories.

Once you are into the Museum itself, the technology makes exceptionally innovative use of all the photographs, films and sound recordings that the IWM holds.You can listen to his speeches, try your hand at composing one or more of them, flip through his painting and his witticisms, look at photographs of his family and his pets, and dabble your hand into his fish pond, to bring up some of the things he wrote and said about his goldfish.You may, if you wish, finger paint one of his own pictures.

More seriously, though, the museum takes you through the five stages of his life, each signalled by an iconic David Low cartoon.  Starting with 'His Finest Hour' (because you have just stepped from the 1940 War Rooms) the story carries on to his life after the war, both as Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister, and culminating in his funeral, which has been so much remembered in the past few weeks.

Then you take a deep breath and head back into his childhood and schooling, his time in the army, and his first achievements as an author. (You can purchase 'The Malakand Field Force' in the shop, by the way). You follow him into government before the First World War, noting with regret his attitude to womens' suffrage, but with approval his involvement in the social reforms of the Liberal Ministry. His time as First Lord of the Admiralty is interesting, because there is a whole feature about Gallipoli, with quotations from him and many others, including Admiral Fisher and Lord Kitchener, neither of whom ever gave the full backing which he thought had been agreed.

The last section concerns his 'Wilderness Years' with time to consider his attitude to the abdication of Edward VIII, and a chance to think about and vote on whether his attitude to India was based on racism.  He may have been wrong on several issues, but with the rise of Hitler, his ability to see straight and think ahead at last becomes clear.  And so you come to the very door through which he walked as PM on 10 May 1940. (Available to the Museum because 10 Downing Street now has metal blast proof doors)  You can read his words, 'I was sure I should not fail' beside it.

But I have not yet mentioned the most remarkable piece of technology in the Museum:  right down the centre runs the 'Lifeline':  a computer driven table which enables you to open a file on every month of his life and, for several years, virtually every single day.  So you can find out anything about him.  Was he a Freemason?  the answer is in the Lifeline.  Did he ever learn to fly? Ditto.  When were his children born?... you get the picture.  In addition there are contextualising events as well, some of which affect the whole massive table:  open the file for 11 November 1918, and the whole table is covered with poppies.  Somewhere on the table is the first biro, Fred Perry winning Wimbledon, the first VI to hit London, and much, much more.

The only reason we left was that, as one of  us said, our brains were full.  So pausing to look at a case of Churchill memorabilia, since we had recently seen similar items celebrating Brunel and Nightingale, we headed out into grey and chilly Horseguards Road.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Brunel Museum

Wednesday 4 February

The Brunel Museum
Railway Ave
Rotherhithe SE16 4LF

Linda and I have known for some time how lucky we are to live along the Overground, and Rotherhithe is now specially easy to get to for both of us. This good fortune was brought home to us because the person who opens up the Museum at 10.00 comes via the hell-hole which is London Bridge and so was a few minutes late, giving us time to admire the charming benches outside the Brunel Museum.
The Museum is housed in the Pump House of Mark Brunel's Rotherhithe tunnel, along which I had just travelled on the Overground.  It used to be possible to walk through the tunnel, but this is almost never an option now. The Museum contains a great deal of interesting information about the tunnel project; although it also contains much about the more famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

We began (after a welcome and warming cup of coffee) downstairs, with a video of the life of IK.  But we also learned about the life of the Frenchman Mark, and his love for a British governess, Sophia Kingdom, whom he married after some years of trying to make his fortune.  His inventive genius meant that the Royal Navy adopted his machine-made rigging blocks;  and the authorities in London agreed to his ambitious scheme to make a tunnel crossing for the congested Thames, to relieve the bridges.  Apparently the owners of the 3000 merchants ships a year which tried to unload in London often claimed that getting their goods across the river cost them as much as bringing cargoes from America!

The film, about the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Great Western Railway, the Saltash Bridge and so on, had a certain level of interest;  but it was made before the winter storms which destroyed Brunel's track past Dawlish, so felt a little out of date. And, since it was all about the work of the son rather than the father, it was not particularly relevant to the building we were in.

Upstairs, the display focuses on the tunnel, with a map to show its course, and pictures and models of the plans, including a watercolour by Mark himself.  We enjoyed a model which pointed out all the skilled trades needed in those days:  miners, bricklayers, boilermen (for the steam engines which worked the pumps and other machines).  The point was also made that the unskilled labourers, many of them Irish, were poorly paid and did not even have their names recorded.  We also saw pictures and a model of the tunnelling shield, the forerunner of the amazing machines that are now building Crossrail, though without the risk to workers at the front end.

The tunnel became a tourist attraction, even while it was being built, though Mark Brunel disliked the crowds of people, and various VIPs who came along and disrupted the work. The work was also disrupted by flooding, and by financial problems, neither of which could be blamed in the inquisitive public.

Once it was opened, in 1843, after 15 years of toil, it never fulfilled its original purpose of shifting freight.  Instead it became, in a way, a curiosity, with thousands of people walking though it and purchasing souvenirs, such as paper stereoscopic vistas, and mugs, cheroot cases and figurines.

The many information boards around the walls were interesting, and linked the tunnel with its creator and his son.  Isambard was 19 years old when he was appointed to an engineering position in his father's project, and he came close to death inn one of the several near-disasters which befell the construction work.

Next we were taken down into what had been the entrance hall of the tunnel.  It originally had a grand pair of staircases leading down to it, appropriate to the smart guests who attended the underwater banquet and festivities of the opening.  Now there is a steep metal staircase, accessed though a very small opening (but we all managed to mind our heads).  The huge cylindrical space is over the current railway line, and the passing trains rumbled under our feet.  It felt very bleak and damp, but the Museum is hoping that one day it may be fully restored and used for 'events' of one kind or another.  This link will show you what it looks like now as well as how it was in 1843, when over a million visitors explored it in its first month.

We regained the surface, where there is a small raised garden, with more railway motifs, and then headed back tot he Overground station, a few metres away, to reuse Brunel's tunnel on the way home, and to warm up on this chilly day.