Monday, 28 November 2016

The Old Royal Naval College Visitor Centre

London SE10 9NN

Thursday November 24 2016

There is much to see in Greenwich‘you need more than day’ say the posters and that is absolutely true. Today was our second visit in two weeks and third overall and there will be more to come.  

The best approach for Wren’s masterpiece (this or St Pauls’ – you choose) is of course by river but we took the DLR route today and made our way into the side entrance of the visitor centre. This is a slightly strange mixture of a tourist office with tours and information specific to Greenwich but also somewhere offering London-wide leaflets (it was here, back in 2008 I picked up the four London bus maps which started us on our eventual 5 year bus odyssey), a café and substantial toilets but threaded through these there is as well a history of the site and above all the buildings.  This I suppose dignifies this visit as a museum rather than a generic look at buildings.

In the far corner (I think this should be more central as chronologically it comes earliest) are the displays relating to the original Tudor Palace, in the main erected by Henry Tudor (VII) as he took over the kingdom following the Wars of the Roses – it was to be the birthplace of three future and very memorable monarchs: Henry VIII, Mary and Elizabeth. The palace extended along the riverfront where even now they are finding interesting artefacts as the foreshore recedes and included a friary and a chapel.  The Friary, which put up some criticism of Henry’s ‘marriage plans’ was of course the first to go with William Peto (who had been Katherine of Aragon’s confessor) imprisoned and exiled for preaching a rather controversial anti-Anne Boleyn sermon. The exhibits here include Tudor rose plasterwork embellishments and fragments of the chapel floor and windows plus a ground plan of what was a very substantial site. After Elizabeth’s death the palace was abandoned and as other noble (hangers-on?) local families left also land changed hands...

Chronologically the next significant building was the Queen’s House (which will form the basis of a separate blog) but its very position, perched halfway up the hill, determined the design of what was to be the Seamen’s Hospital down by the river. The displays in the Visitor Centre backed by video commentary (Dan Cruickshank who sadly has appropriate things to say but says them in such an annoying way I tend to switch off – is it only me?)  focus on several aspects of architecture looking at the building materials, the design and the specification – in this case somewhere for the pensioned/retired and almost invariably disabled ex-seamen to live. Wren had precedent here with the formidable Chelsea Royal Hospital for army veterans At Greenwich his brief was more complex as he needed to allow for the river frontage and leave a clear view up to the Queen’s House. The result was a hugely pleasing symmetrical building of open courtyards with two domed communal buildings – the chapel and dining room, so plenty of room for the residents to take the air, watch the river and probably smoke… The stone has worn well and the life of Wren points out that he had a strong sense of civic duty, which indeed is his legacy of several great public buildings. There are reconstructions of what a seaman’s room might have been like (some were communal) and an idea of how he might have spent his day; according to this hardly one of riotous living. The project had originally been that of Queen Mary but when she died of smallpox the surviving William III completed it. Among its Governors was former Admiral Hardy who had served so memorably with Nelson, which must have been a thrill for the pensioners who much admired Nelson. (The main Maritime Museum has an exhibition looking at the life Emma Hamilton, but that’s for another day).

There were two intriguing wooden statues, not unlike the figure-heads we had seen round the corner two weeks ago, called ‘Gin’ and (slightly fatter) ‘Beer’, which apparently adorned the buttery where the pensioners ate.

We did go out to look at the Dining Hall which is considered very worthwhile – however it is currently closed for a major renovation and when re-opened will apparently (presumably at a cost)  include a raised walkway the better to be able to admire James Thornhill’s painted ceiling. We still remember when the Dining Room was the naval college’s and smelt persistently of cabbage…

The Chapel is equally handsome and beautifully proportioned with some intricate Coade Stone on the ceiling – this is a later building as fire had demolished the original chapel.

By the late 19th Century the Seamen’s Retreat was losing numbers as post Waterloo there were fewer conflicts thus fewer casualties of war and   those there were preferred to live at home. It took a mere four years to turn the Hospital into a college for the training of Royal Naval Officers, which opened in 1873 under the auspices of Sir Astley Cooper Key. It took students from round the world and eventually trained the merchant marine also. When I said to Jo that it seemed a bit late in the day to be training folk she pointed out that previously the officers had bought their commissions and other ranks were ‘press-ganged’.
Within 40 years they would be training sailors for war and essentially focussed only on ‘hostility’ training thereafter. There had been training facilities in Portsmouth both before they moved here and after they moved back to the South West.   Their motto indicates they embraced (not literally we hope?) the training of women also.  

(Minerva as well as Mars..)

These buildings have now been taken over by the University of Greenwich and the students were much in evidence today as we left this lower part of the Unesco heritage site.  


Saturday, 19 November 2016

Islington Museum

245 St John's Road EC1V 4NB

Thursday 17 November 2016

Linda and I are fans of the borough museums around London, and we thought Islington's was a splendid example of the genre.  It has one room for temporary exhibitions and, at the moment, they are telling the story of fires and firefighting in Islington, making use of objects from the London Fire Brigade Museum which is currently closed.  We started with fire because we were told that a school party was about to arrive in the room. (We were able to eavesdrop for a while on their enthusiasm and the 'performance' of the Museum's excellent Education person)

The south end of Islington is, of course, very close to the city of London, so the story of fire-fighting goes from pulling buildings down, and using water brought through elm pipes, to the Great Fire and the start of proper fire insurance. The thought of firefighters checking for the right insurance mark before putting out a fire made me think of medical treatment in the United States today.  The London Fire Engine Establishment of 1833 became the London Fire Brigade in 1866 and has not yet been privatised.

We learned that the Vestry, effectively local government before the 1860s, was able to give money to people whose 'poverty came by fire'. There was also a pile of dressing up clothes, and some 20th century equipment. Islington suffered 57 consecutive nights of bombing in 1940-41, so the work if the Auxiliary Fire Service is also recorded. Answering more that 50,000 calls, they suffered 327 deaths. (The names are recorded on the memorial at the St Paul's end of the Millennium Bridge)

The main part of the Museum is organised in themes, and we started with 'food and drink'. Information about the New River reminded us that people paid for drinking water until the mid 19th century, and we saw delivery vehicles of various vintages for other items .

The section about Italian restaurants, dating back to the 1920s, was salutary in these Brexit days. Alfredo's Cafe is still busy.  Speaking of Italians, if you visit the grave of the former Islington resident and great clown, Grimaldi, at St James' Churchyard, now renamed Grimaldi Park, you should dance on his grave, as it plays a tune.

In Living, we saw a dresser with a number of objects, including a Dickens mourning brooch (Mr Pickwick lived in Goswell Street) and a 1930s kitchen. The cooker, kettle and cupboards were all convincing, but we doubted the authenticity of the hot and cold chrome taps over the Belfast sink. A basin and ewer and a mangle were further reminders to be glad we live 'now' and not 'then'.
One of the many memories featured on the walls was of a man who used to be sent with a basin to buy sixpence worth of cracked eggs.

The 'Radicals' area had a bust of Lenin, who lived in Clerkenwell while writing for Iskra. The 1907 Congress of the Russian Communist Part was held in Canonbury.  The Spa Field Riots of 1816 got a mention, as did the suffragettes. I was sorry that the Museum has nothing much about the huge 1834 demonstration in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, but they are of course memorialised elsewhere in the borough.

In 'Health' we saw that the first Marie Stopes clinic in the UK was opened in Islington in 1921, and there were features on the Caribbean nurses who came to the area, as well as the famous Finsbury Health Centre and the Whittington Hospital. There was a sort of recipe book of extraordinary remedies, some of which looked much nastier than the complaints they were supposed to cure.

Linda was very taken with a table full of lapel pins and badges, claiming that her own family connection was larger.  We spotted 'save the ILEA', though not 'nuclear free Ambridge', one of my favourites

As well as a brief display about fashion in Islington, there was a sectioin about poverty and the Work Houses.  The Vestry had much to do in Islington, since boroughs like this, on the border between wealth and poverty, attract many transients.  We saw the seal which authorised a 'Pauper Funeral' paid for by the local rates, and also the menus and recipes for the Workhouse inmates, presented by a descendant of the chief cook there.

'Education' included a round up of local schools and colleges, as well as the punishment book of one of the schools. Offences for which boys were caned ranged from 'disobedience' to 'jumping on vehicles.  As with all such records, the same names appear repeatedly, demonstrating just how ineffectual corporal punishment is (except, as the old joke says, in making the administrator of the beating feel better)

I think all local museums have a section on wartime, and Islington is no exception. Starting with the Swiss born Alexander Aubert, who established a militia to deal with invading Napoleonic troops, the exhibition has the stories of First World War veterans, and material from the home front during the Second World War: gas masks, first aid kits, information posters and descriptions of life under the Blitz and the V-weapons. Islington was a tube-free area (well, north of Angel anyway) until the Victoria Line, so sheltering was in cellars and basements

Entertainers and leisure featured in several sections: the many spas enjoying the clear water of the wells around here, such as the Peerless Pool, opened in 1743 with changing rooms and other facilities for bathers. (The Peerless Pool features in several Georgette Heyer novels, as addicts will recall) The section on leisure was very entertaining (!) 

There was some film of Arsenal beating Liverpool in the Cup Final, in 1950, with King George VI watching. Seven cinemas opened in Islington in 1909 alone, and the borough's links with the movies were extended with the establishment of the Gainsborough Studios in 1924. This is where Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes was filmed, Ivor Novello and James Mason also filmed here.  Then there were the three Music Halls, of which the most famouis was probably Collins, where Tommy Trinder was one of the regulars. His catch phrase ('you lucky people') could well apply when Champagne Charlie was on the bill. His sponsor, Moet and Chandon apparently used to let him offer champagne to all the customers.

Linda and I felt pretty lucky to have enjoyed such an interesting museum.

Monday, 14 November 2016

The Cutty Sark

King William Walk
London SE10 9HT

Thursday November 10 2016

Teeth better but cold worse we met in maritime Greenwich with of course the DLR station named for today’s expedition. Sadly, or gladly depending on your fondness for sea travel (not), we were not to leave dry land today. I still have memories of an early school outing to the Cutty Sark  in what must have been the early days of her being saved. She opened to the public in 1957 and we must have been taken a couple of years later – my abiding memory is of lots of tea and wool and rigging and the fact she won a race back from Australia. In the Fifties the ship was in a dry dock and exposed to the elements without benefit of much to preserve her timbers which therefore started to crack and bulge – hence the massive restoration which started in 2000, delayed further by an electrical fire but re-opened by the Queen ( for the second time) in 2012. Now the slender sleek hull (it was this streamlining design which gave her the speed) is encased in steel and well supported by struts.

That is where we started our visit: on the lowest level (loos and café) to wander round the clipper’s hull – there were boards to explain her restoration but as it was very quiet we were told about it by an enthusiastic ‘crew member’ before he was distracted by a group of infant visitors. The impression of being under the sea is enhanced by the animated mural of a fishy sea scape running round the edge. The audio visuals explain her class – a Clipper because she goes ‘at a clip’ and her name borrowed by her Scots owner from a Robbie Burns ballad.  This version has a translation as I certainly needed it. The witch Nannie Dee cannot cross the water but is pursuing a rider in a ‘cutty sark’ or short shift which was supposed to add speed.  You only need to look at the ship to see that for her size she has a very slim hull but a large area for sails, all to make her quicker.

At the front end what from a distance looks like a party of brightly clothed guests turns out to be a collection of figureheads, recognisable amongst them Garibaldi, Florence Nightingale (women well outnumber men), and Abraham Lincoln, who must have been turning on his Memorial at today’s presidential election result…  This area is obviously used for ‘corporate hospitality’ events…

Up a level (and there are spacious lifts also) to the lower deck or hold. This is set out as if loaded with tea which is the commodity for which she was designed and commissioned – it being a somewhat luxury item that was gaining in popularity. The displays include a very useful time-line on tea from its introduction to the UK – choice quotes from our ‘old friend’ Dr Johnson – until the launch of the Cutty Sark. In fact she was a bit late to the tea race which was soon being run by steam ships. There is also a mural along part of one side evoking the London portside where the cargo would have been unloaded.

Up to the ‘Tween deck where the tea chests are ‘joined’ by bales of wool as after about 14 years on the China run the Cutty Sark ran on to Australia returning with fine merino wool. At the front or fo’csle you can stand directly behind the Cutty Sark’s figure-head who has been given life through a rather sweet animated film – she describes how windy, and therefore noisy  this part of the ship would have been and this is where the crew slept originally, probably in hammocks. The ‘tea’ crew numbered about 25 later reduced to 19 for the ‘wool’ runs. The Cutty Sark’s most successful  period was under the captaincy of Woodget who got his ship and crew back from Australia in a record breaking time of 11 days * (and you complain about 20 hour flights). Once steam took over this run as well,  the ship passed to Portuguese owners who ran her for about 20 years to the 1920s.

From here you get back into the fresh air and the top deck where there are two sets of accommodation, crew and officers. Each has a sitting room and kitchen appropriate to the numbers with ‘examples’ of the food available in pull out drawers. Given the likely weather at sea everything that can be is screwed down or has a lip to prevent dishes sliding off - There is a very elegant gimbal to hold drinks glasses. In fact all the woodwork is beautiful and has weathered very well and is bound with intricate brass work to strengthen it – the workmanship and carpentry is beautiful though of course uncredited.

Standing on deck allows you to wonder at the mass of ropes which would have allowed you to control the massive sails – speaking as one who cannot even thread a needle without getting into a tangle, how sailors work out which rope belongs to what is a bit of a mystery, but doubtless part of their training.  In fact according to Wikepedia they are not even called ropes but rigging and spars and lanyards; like any craft it has its own language and customs.
On the day we visited there were actually two chaps up in the rigging – apparently there is a regular practice of renovating the bits of woodwork which hold the ropes – think toggle to stop the cords on your windproof jacket from shifting – and that’s what they were doing today. They were tied on of course, the weather was calm and the ship not moving which are all benefits the original crew would not have had. You cannot overestimate the bravery of those who climbed the rigging….

Gazing upwards can be quite mesmerising and probably the best part of the Cutty Sark Experience – her elegance can be appreciated from nearby but for a more detailed appreciation of her history and prowess you would need to go on board.   

* PS. Thanks Tim for comment and information below. So 11 days is stunningly fast even by today's shipping standards though I expect the CS is a bit smaller than some freighters today.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

British Dental Association Museum

64 Wimpole Street
London W1G 8YS

Thursday November 3 2016

It would seem perverse if you had an appointment at the dentist, for actual treatment, to be visiting the Dental Museum  barely an hour before but that was the situation for one of us this week. It was partly the proximity as Wimpole Street for over a century has been the ‘go-to’ address for private doctors, many of whom can still be found here between the  institutions and august bodies – Number 1 is the HQ for the Royal Society of Medicine, the nurses were round the corner – but today we were heading for the dentists. Many of the houses are sturdy and handsome Georgian terraces but the BDA must have been  ‘filling’ (Ho-ho) where a gap appeared as the building dates from 1967. (By the way the numbering is so long-established the numbers go up one side and down the other – none of that odds and evens business.)

As Jo said, dentists are in the main disliked not for who they are but for what they do, which is often to cause pain, so everyone at the BDA was totally charming and welcoming. It is their professional body so there are numerous meeting and lecture rooms and we were directed to the museum, which is just off the library/archive on the ground floor. I suppose with the exception of the large chairs (and there is one of those on display) and the spittoons much of what dentists use comes small and the exhibits are well displayed and well captioned in a handful of themed cabinets.

You are drawn into the exhibition by a series of early/mid-20th century posters encouraging parents to care for their children’s teeth – save those precious little pearls. Baby teething is a fairly brutal process and truth to say teeth can cause discomfort throughout life. Sadly Jo and I belong to what is known in the trade as ‘the heavy metal generation’ namely post war children where a combination of sugar coming off rationing, Vitamin C supplements coming in syrupy forms and relative ignorance about tooth care means we have more fillings than teeth, whereas the next generations benefited from the addition of fluoride and more awareness of the damage of sugar in all its forms.

But back to the museum which is arranged thematically.

Dentistry has a very short history compared to medicine – the first text book appeared in 1728 in French whilst in the UK it was mid-19th century before practitioners started researching, writing and practising in a more coherent way: up until then any ‘dentistry’ (more likely brutal extractions) was done by the barber or the blacksmith, the latter having the tools. Sir John Tomes, who is honoured here, not only helped improve the instruments and the research but also became a lecturer and founded the British Dental Association in 1880. Up until then practitioners needed no qualifications and anyone could call themselves a dentist – it was as late as 1921 that the Dentists Act finally ensured those extracting and filling your teeth had been appropriately trained.

Decay is easy to spot and there are several examples of rotted and sometimes filled teeth that were found in the remains recently excavated in Farringdon as part of the  Elizabeth Line construction works.

Though some of these sets of teeth are probably later, there being perhaps several different ages of burial ground?  One set is filled with a little gold – unusual in what might have been a paupers’ burial site but who knows how anyone landed up there?

The 20th century saw advances in drilling and filling (there are foot and hand operated drills for you to try, making early dentistry seem quite a ‘physical’ job) with the invention of amalgam fillings – a mixture of silver coins and mercury. 
Jo and I certainly remembered those early heavy slow drills then replaced by higher speed ones – no sound effects at the Museum but it did not need much imagination  to remember the earlier ones, a small scale woodwork drill only noisier, let alone the whine of the current ones.. Gold has long been a favourite material for fillings and crowns as it is totally tasteless and does not decay or crack, yet can be moulded accurately, so it remains a preferred material.

Of course if drilling and crowning does not work the next stage is extraction (multiple forceps on display) followed by ‘false teeth’. Again the evolution here is interesting – ranging from small carved bits of ivory (hippo or walrus being the most favoured), which are then tied in place with fine silk threads – how insecure this must have felt? The big revolution came when vulcanite  was invented (by Mr Goodyear).

The 20th century not only saw a range of new materials open to the medical and dental professions but with the proliferation of professional expertise (the first dental school was opened in 1889)  there were also dental dispensaries for the poor before the advent of the National Health Service.

Alongside these technical innovations the profession also used anaesthesia – I will not elaborate as we have already visited the Centre for Anaesthesia and it makes for strangely bland and uninteresting displays.

Not so the section on Prevention – from the jolly posters advocating better care of your children’s teeth to early toothbrushes made of bones (the handles) and pig’s hair… There is everything here from novelty toothbrush cases to early forms of tooth powder. William Addis produced the first toothbrush
(there’s a nice little film here if you can get your computer to load it). Preventive dentistry became serious after the First World War when the Services realised that significant numbers of recruits were turned away because of poor or rotten teeth.

This concludes the main exhibition but we were encouraged to go downstairs where there was a special exhibition on dentistry during the First World War when their skills were needed not so much for the day to day fillings etc but for repairs following serious facial injuries. This is where dentistry meets up with maxilla-facial surgery, a later surgical speciality.

We thought the displays were well presented – rather than cases full of similar instruments they explain more fully, and in a very accessible way, including  some films,  the history and use of key items and significant developments acknowledging the pioneers of their profession.  In amongst the exhibits are frequent cartoons (not easily reproduced) and other humorous touches – we liked the tooth shaped (perfect of course) stools, and the ‘shop’ made an instant sale with its clockwork chattering wind-up teeth.

Next step – book that check-up…