Friday, 16 February 2018

The Man who would be Cheops Part One; Thomas Willson and the Pyramid of Death

The Pyramid of Cheops (or the Great Pyramid of Giza as it is better known) in the ‘Description de l'Égypte’
One of the consequences of Napoleon’s invasion of the Ottoman Empire in 1798 was a wave of Egyptomania sweeping across Europe during the first two decades of the 19th century. Alongside his 40,000 troops Bonaparte took 167 savants with him to the land of the Pharaohs; engineers and artists, geologists, chemists, and mathematicians as well as philologists and antiquarians, who collectively formed the Institut d'Égypte, dedicated to studying the cradle of civilisation, Ancient Egypt.  Back in France, from 1809 until 1829, the Institut painstakingly produced and published under Napoleon’s patronage the nine folios of text and ten volumes of plates of the monumental ‘Description de l'Égypte’, fuelling the craze for all things Egyptian. In architecture the Egyptian revival look poised, for a while at least, to challenge the hegemony of neo-classicism. Gothic revival may have eventually became the prevailing taste of the Victorian age but the architecture of the Egyptian revival, with its fascination for mortuary culture, found its niche in the newly formed garden cemeteries of England’s major cities.  

Sir Frederick Trench's proposed pyramid to commemorate victory against Napoleon.  
Some of the greatest monuments of the Egyptian revival never made it beyond the planning stage. In 1815 a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, Sir Frederick William Trench MP, proposed building a pyramid to commemorate victory over the French.  His suggestion was for a 380 foot tall, 22 step ziggurat (one step for each year of the war and taller than St Paul’s) to be sited at the top end of Pall Mall where Trafalgar Square now stands. Sir Frederick’s pyramid scheme would, he calculated, provide employment for demobilised British troops for at least 10 years at a cost of just £1 million to the British taxpayer. No one took the proposal for a giant pyramid seriously and Sir Frederick eventually gave up on the idea, instead throwing his time and energy into pursuing a scheme to build a giant quay along the north bank of the Thames. But something about Pyramids appealed to the Zeitgeist and in the architect Thomas Willson’s proposal for the metropolitan sepulchre on Primrose Hill, a gigantic pyramid to be built to store up to five million corpses, it also happened to dovetail with the heated contemporary debate about what to do about London’s overcrowded and noxious churchyards. The 1828 edition of The London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, & Sciences dubbed Willson’s proposal the ‘pyramid of death’:

Another remarkable design is “the project of a pyramidal metropolitan sepulchre By Thomas Willson Architect. The edifice is to consist of brick work to be faced with square blocks of granite. The base of it would, according to the project, occupy an area of 40 acres (about as large as Russell Square) the length of the ground line being 1200 feet. The height of it is intended to be 1500 feet, (nearly four times the height of St Paul's). The projector has published a prospectus of the work, which will be found annexed to the painting exhibited in the gallery”. This monstrous piece of folly, the object of which is to have generations rotting in one vast pyramid of Death, instead of being quietly mingled with their parent earth and forgotten, is perhaps the most ridiculous of the schemes broached in our scheming age. The desire to accomplish that which every wise and philosophical mind must wish not to have accomplished is indeed worthy of a professor of that art or science Architecture, which is at so low an ebb in this country, as to stand at the bottom of the whole list.
Willson's blueprint for the Metropolitan Sepulchre
Willson’s proposal required no public funding; it was in fact ‘practical, economical and remunerative’ and would, he believed cost, £2,583,552 to build but make a profit of £10,764,800 once the sepulchre was completely filled (which he estimated would take about 125 years, at a rate of 40,000 interments a year). Freehold vaults, “which are to closed up and sealed for ever when interment lakes place, with stone tablets on the face, explanatory of name, place, age, &c.”, were to cost between £100 and £500, depending on the size and location, and there would be a steady income stream from vaults leased to the various parishes of London. The gigantic structure would hold 215,219 vaults on 94 stories, accessed by sloping ramps and hydraulic powered lifts and would cover 18 acres of Primrose Hill but hold as many bodies as a 1000 acre cemetery.   His clever design would, Willson wrote “go far towards completing the glory of London.” It isn’t clear if the 1500 foot height of the Metropolitan Sepulchre included the 200 feet elevation of Primrose Hill or not. Either way the brooding bulk of the Sepulchre, at almost 460 metres tall, would have dominated the London skyline; the obelisk at the summit of the pyramid would have been at twice the height of Canary Wharf and 250 metres higher than the Shard. Being almost as wide at the base at it was tall it would have hung over the capital like a manmade mountain, blocking out sunlight for long periods of the day to huge swathes of north London. One of the main concerns about the scheme was that the weight of the millions of tons of bricks and granite used would crush Primrose Hill.

Willson first proposed his scheme in 1824 when it caught the attention of barrister George Frederick Carden, the garden cemetery pioneer, who was beginning to take an interest in burial reform.  Carden was intrigued but not convinced and Willson was enrolled into the burgeoning burial reform movement.  He became one of the early members of Carden’s General Cemetery Company and attended the historic meetings held in the Freemason’s Tavern in June and July 1830, chaired by Andrew Spottiswoode MP. After Carden had opened the meeting by outlining his vision for a London garden cemetery along the lines of Père Lachaise, open to all denominations and all religions, Willson was the first person to respond. According to the Oxford Journal of 10 July 1830, “Mr. Wilson (sic) coincided generally in the sentiments expressed by the last speaker, but he did not think the plan of Pere-la-Chaise suitable for a general cemetery in this country. He had a plan by which he should be able to make 50 or 100 acres of land as available for the purpose of burial as 1,000 could be by any other method.” 
Perhaps spurred on by the momentum around the General Cemetery Company Willson published his plans in 1830 under the title “The Pyramid, a general metropolitan cemetery to be erected in the vicinity of Primrose Hill” including drawings of his proposed designs.  The publication attracted the attention of another notable figure in the burgeoning cemetery movement, John Claudius Loudon, whose correspondence with the Editor of the Morning Advertiser was published in the newspaper on 19 January 1830. As with other members of the cemetery movement, Loudon applauded Willson’s desire to abolish burials in churchyards but objected to the pyramid proposal “first, because I think the risk of mephitic exhalations would be greatly increased; secondly, because the expenses of burial of the poor would be greatly increased by such agglomeration of corruption; and, thirdly, and in this perhaps I am peculiar, because I hate the idea of interment in a vault, or in any way which prevents the body from speedily returning to its primitive elements, and becoming useful by entering into new combinations—vegetable, mineral, or even animal, in aquatic burial.” He also had an geometrical objection to the proposed form of the metropolitan sepulchre; “a pyramid recalls to me an age of darkness and superstition; and not being guilty of what Mr. Bentham calls, ancestor worship, and thinking that in this country there is by far too great a veneration for antiquity in things mental as well material, I prefer looking forward.” After encouraging Willson to “push his scheme as far it will go, by which, at least, public attention will be called to the subject,” he went on to make an alternative proposal, a garden cemetery, to be built on 500 acres of the cheapest land available within a 50 mile radius of London, somewhere like Bagshot Heath he suggests. That the dead be conveyed there by public hearse which “ought to leave London every other day, at a certain hour” though “a rail-road and steam loco-motive engine might in time be employed in this business, for poorer classes —and the rich, or those who ride when alive in private carriages, might bury by private hearses.” This sounds remarkably prescient of Brookwood Cemetery, which is a mere 6 or 7 miles from Bagshot Heath.
Laura Haines recreation of the Sepulchre as it would look on today's London skyline
Willson assiduously followed Loudon’s suggestion to ‘push his scheme as far as it would go’ as we will see later, but despite 30 years of unstinting effort on his part and the lure of the potential millions to be made in burial fees no one really took the Metropolitan Sepulchre proposal seriously. In time memory of the scheme survived only as a paragraph in scholarly histories of the burial reform movement and as footnotes in accounts of the architecture of the English Egyptian Revival. But in the last six or seven years interest in the ‘pyramid of death’ has revived and dozens of websites have given posting space to an account based very heavily on the London Literary Gazette article of 1828 and it frequently features in lists such as ‘The landmark buildings that never were’ (BBC News 24 Jul 2012) and ‘The TopTen: Unrealised and unfinished buildings’ (The Independent 09 May 2015). The graphic artist Laura Haines completed her project ‘Metropolitan Sepulchre: ACounterfactual History of London’ in 2016, imagining what Willson’s pyramid would be like today if it had actually been built; the answer, of course, is that it would be a tourist attraction.
Laura Haines again - this time recreating the Sepulchre during the blitz.
In 2012 Radio 4 broadcast ‘A Pyramid For Primrose Hill’, Jonathan Glancey’s look at the Metropolitan sepulchre, the Egyptian Revival and the cemetery movement (still available on BBC iplayer). One of Glancey’s  interviewees was Ralph Hyde former librarian of the Guildhall Library. As they leaf through a copy of Willson’s plans Glancey asks do we know much about Thomas Willson? “Not very much,” says Hyde, “he was born about 1780, and he went to the Royal Academy schools, and he was given some prizes, so he started off as a serious architect by the sound of it. He did various schemes for national monuments, victory monuments, but none of them seem to have been built. But in the 1820's he came up with this idea for a pyramid for London….” And there, in less than a hundred words, we have the sum total of virtually all the biographical data available on Willson. No one seemed to know anything about him; his pyramid may be one of London’s favourite unbuilt buildings but the man himself was a total mystery. I could not believe that anyone in the public eye for an outré proposition like the Metropolitan Sepulchre could really leave no trace in the records. There had to be something, somewhere. And so I started to work through birth, death and marriage records, census returns, newspaper archives and even the records of the Cape Colony in South Africa and eventually started to piece together a biographical outline of the man who would be Cheops.  

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

London's Malign Geometery; A Hawksmoor Tour (Part 3 Whitechapel to Limehouse)

Shortly before midnight on Saturday the 7th December 1811 Timothy Marr, a draper of 29 Ratcliffe Highway (a “public thoroughfare in the most chaotic quarter of eastern, or nautical, London,” according to Thomas de Quincy) sent his serving girl Margaret Jewell out to buy him some oysters and to pay a bakers bill whilst he and his apprentice James Gowan were shutting up the shop. Margaret’s errands were a waste of time – she couldn’t find any oysters for sale at that time of night and the bakers too were closed. When she returned back to the drapers the door of the shop was closed and the shutters down. Margaret heard the Marr’s three month old baby crying as she rapped on the door but it quietened, presumably when Celia Marr picked up her son and comforted or fed him. No one answered Margaret’s increasingly frantic knocking. A passing drunk began to harass her and she had to quieten down until the parish night watch passed by at 1am. Even he couldn’t rouse the Marrs, even though his shouting and banging on the door woke all the neighbours, including John Murray a pawnbroker who lived and worked next door. He went to the rear of his property and climbed over the wall into the Marr’s back yard. From here he was able to get into the shop where he almost tripped over the body of James Gowan, who was lying on the floor with his head smashed to a bloody pulp and his throat gashed open. By the light of his candle the shocked Murray could also see the body of Celia Marr, her head similarly staved in and still leaking blood into a large pool on the floorboards. Murray ran to the front door and pulled it open yelling "Murder, murder. Come and see what murder is here!" The small crowd of neighbours and passersby, led by the night watchman poured into the shop where they soon located the body of Timothy Marr. Someone yelled "What about the baby?" and the crowd pushed into the Marr’s bedroom where they found the baby still in its crib, its throat cut so deeply that the head was almost severed and the left hand side of the head battered with a blunt instrument.

The murder of the Marrs caused national outrage. A mass killing of this sort, taking place in the victims own home was unusual and terrified everyone. A hundred guinea reward was posted for information leading to the identification of the killer or killers. The only tangible clue the police had to go on was a maul, a heavy shipwright’s hammer that had been found at the scene of the crime clotted with blood and human hair and obviously one of the murder weapons. Then on the 19th December the murderer struck again, at the King’s Arms Tavern in New Gravel lane (now Glamis Road). A night watchman had been passing the public house in the small hours when he found a half naked man trying to climb down a rope of knotted sheets from the top storey of the building. The man turned out to be a lodger in the pub by the name of John Turner and he started yelling that there was murder being committed inside. The door of the cellar was quickly broken open and inside the bodies of the landlord, John Williamson, his wife Elizabeth and a barmaid Bridget Harrington were all discovered with their heads battered in and their throats cut, in the same manner as the Marrs. The Williamson’s 14 year old granddaughter survived – she slept through the attack and the murderer or murderers probably did not realise she was in the house.

Postmortem sketch of
John Williams
On the 21st December a seaman by the name of John Williams was arrested at the Pear Tree Inn after information was received from an anonymous source naming him as the murderer. He had been seen drinking at the Kings Arms on the night of the murder and there were other circumstantial details too which linked him to the crimes. He was remanded at Cold Bath Fields Prison to appear before the Shadwell magistrates to answer questions on his possible involvement in the shocking crimes. On the day of the hearing the magistrates were sat waiting in their packed court room when a messenger appeared from the prison – Williams had committed suicide, hanging himself in his cell. The magistrates went ahead and heard the testimony of the other witnesses in what now appeared to be an open and shut case. Their verdict, hotly disputed to this day, was that John Williams was solely responsible for the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. 

To appease public opinion and In lieu of a public execution the Home Secretary Sir Richard Ryder, accepting the conclusions of the Shadwell Magistrates that John Williams was solely responsible for the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, ordered that his body be publically paraded around the streets at the scenes of his crimes. Once the local residents were satisfied that the monster was indeed dead he was to be interred at a crossroads with a stake through his heart. The crossroads chosen were at the junction of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road, close by the Crown and Dolphin public house. The photograph above looks from the railway bridge on Cannon Street Road to the cross roads where Williams was buried with the Crown and Dolphin still standing on the corner and the tower of St Georges’-in-the-East showing above the roof tops of the houses.

On New Years Eve 1811 accompanied by the Thames Police and the Bow Street Mounted Patrol as well as local constables and watchman John Williams’ body was arranged on an open cart along with the maul, a chisel and a crowbar that he had used in committing his crimes and driven slowly through the streets of Wapping and Shadwell, stopping outside the Marr’s shop at 29 Ratcliffe Highway and the Kings Arms Tavern. 10,000 spectators lined the route and the normally unruly east end crowd was unusually subdued. When the procession reached the crossroads the grave had already been dug. The driver of the cart whipped Williams’ body three times in an unscripted act of revenge and then it was removed from the cart and placed on its knees in the open grave. A stake was placed at the point of his back judged to be above the heart and then driven through it with a mallet before the earth was piled over the corpse.

In 1902 gas mains were being laid in Cannon Street North and Cable Street. The labourers digging the trenches uncovered a skeleton with a wooden stake driven through the ribcage and adjourned to the Crown and Dolphin while their bosses debated what to do. They probably left carrying John Williams’ skull which rumour has it was then exchanged for a few pints when the landlord took an interest in it. Certainly by the time the authorities arrived to take Williams’ remains away the skeleton was headless and once the mains had been laid, the road repaved and official interest in the site had waned a skull purportedly belonging to John Williams’ went on prominent display in the saloon bar.

The Marrs, the first victims of the Ratcliffe Highway Murderer, were buried in the churchyard of Hawksmoor's St Georges'-in-the-East. A large headstone was set up which disappeared when all the headstones were cleared and lined up against the churchyard wall to allow the graveyard to be converted into a park. It was assumed the headstone was gone forever but the historian Sarah Wise (author of a trio of excellent books on London, including one on grave robbing in Bloomsbury) was rooting around some broken fragments of stone in the park when she came across pieces of the lost memorial.

The funeral of the Marr family, held at St George's in the East

There has been a flurry of activity centred around the Ratcliffe Highway Murders because of the 200th anniversary. On the 28th December there is a Highway Murder Walk starting at 3.00pm at St George's (just as it is getting dark - obviously for the atmosphere) and taking in all the key sites in an hour and a half stroll. There isn't that much to see - the Marrs' shop is now a SAAB dealership for example - but that is the nature of these East End walks. As there are few physical traces of the places the events happened you have to attune yourself to picking up on the non physical force fields that are still in place, the lines of energy that tell you that you are standing on the spot where the ghastly deeds happened. A £10 fee is payable and booking in advance recommended. Call me a philistine but I don't understand why anyone would pay a tenner to be shown a SAAB dealership that is perfectly easy to locate all by yourself. And if you want to hear the story or know more, PD James book 'The Maul & the Pear Tree' will give you a lot more for your ten quid then you will get out of a tour guide.  

Work started on Hawksmoor’s St George’s in the East in 1714 (on land acquired for £400) and was completed in 1729 (unexpected delays were caused by bad bricks, incompetent workmen and the theft of building materials ‘especially on Sundays’ according to one of the contractors). It is a large church, designed to seat 1230, and cost £18,557 3s 3d. At the time the church was built Shadwell was a rather prosperous suburb of maritime London – it was only much later that it became an East End slum district. In 1795 Daniel Lyson his ‘Environs of London’ described the area as built up ‘apart from a few grass fields’ in the north of the parish and the residents were “employed, for the most part, in rope-making, and the manufacture of other articles for the rigging of ships.” His list of burials in the church yard includes 14 ships captains, 2 Royal Navy Lieutenants, a pair of surgeons, a merchant, a sprinkling of Esquires and ‘John Abbott, Gent (1787).  In the late 1850’s the church became the scene of serious disturbances when the Low Church Bishop of London appointed a militant protestant clergyman as a Sunday afternoon  preacher in what was a church and congregation dominated by High Churchmen. According to a parliamentary report the congregation retaliated to the appointment by “hounds let loose in the aisles; hassocks thrown at the altar; boys and clergy kicked and tripped; boys supplied with peashooters and fireworks; a pew used as a privy; and a Protestant League which met every week to plan the next weeks assault.”

The church suffered a direct hit from an incendiary bomb in 1941 and was completely gutted. The shell stood empty for 20 years until it was restored in the early 1960’s. By then the parish had no requirement for such a large church so, in a very unusual arrangement, a new, smaller church was built inside the walls of the old.  Hawksmoor’s design is as idiosyncratic and eclectic as ever – the tower is topped by six copies of a Roman sacrificial altar. 

From Shadwell you can walk down the Commercial Road to Limehouse or you can take a slightly longer route which takes you down to and along the Thames. Canary Wharf, 1 Canada Square which can can be seen intermittently along your route from Bloomsbury to Shadwell is always in view once you reach the river side. Iain Sinclair would have made much of the Pyramid that tops the building if it had been built in 1975 when he was writing 'Lud Heat'. As it wasn't, other fevered imaginations have had to extract every last ounce of symbolic meaning from what is London's most prominent building......

“London still sees more than its share of buildings which seem to owe more to the occult than to strict practicality. Number One Canada Square, better known as Canary Wharf, is topped with a conspicuous pyramid with a flashing light at its apex. It could hardly be a more graphic embodiment of the familiar image of a pyramid topped by an eye, a symbol familiar from the back of the US dollar bill.

The architect of One Canada Square was Cesar Pelli, who is quoted as saying that the tower was intended to be a simple geometric form. “Of the four different roof shapes available from the World Financial Center, he chose the pyramid because he found it to be common in most cultures,” according to one source.

Pyramids are not exactly common in our culture – although Hawksmoor certainly added a few. The height of the Canary Wharf pyramid happens to be 130ft (40m), which some have suggested makes it an embodiment of the 13 steps of the Masonic pyramid.

“This is the clearest symbol yet. Screw the Washington Monument, I think I’ve found the biggest Obelisk and Eye of Horus yet. This has got to be down to the Masons,” writes one excited blogger as he demonstrates how the Canary Wharf complex can be mapped on to Masonic symbols. Of course, conspiracy theories do not need much of a launch pad, and others skilled in the art have managed to link Pelli to the Freemasons, the Skull & Bones Society, the Order of Death and much, much more…”
David Hambling in the Fortean Times

The foundations of Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s were laid in 1712 and the church was completed in 1724. For some reason however the building wasn’t consecrated until 1730. There is a Pyramid in the church yard which was originally meant to be placed at the top of the tower (see the photograph below).

The Limehouse pyramid by Guy Vaes
Daniel Lyson’s, in his ‘Environs of London’ (1795) said that the parish “contains about 150 acres of land not covered by buildings: of these about 10 are market-gardens; the remainder pasture, occupied by cowkeepers, whose stock of cattle amounts to about 180…. The principal manufactures in the place are Mrs. Turner's of sailclothes, and Mr. Hall's of pot-ashes. The late Charles Dingley, Esq. erected a saw-mill of his own invention, which still exists, but has not been employed for many years. There are three dock-yards in the parish used principally for repairs. A navigable canal communicating with the river Lee at Bromley joins the Thames in this parish. It was made about the year 1769, pursuant to an act of parliament, and is called the Limehouse-cut.” He notes the birth of triplets as a curiosity from the Parish Registry; "John, Thomas, and Eleanor, sons and daughter (at the same birth) of Thomas Carnell, fisherman, and Susanna his wife, baptized Nov. 21, 1739,” but then goes on to mention almost as an afterthought “they were all buried on the 7th of December.”  

This piece was originally written and published on Flickr in November/December 2011.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

London's Malign Geometry - A Hawksmoor tour (Part 2 Spitalfields & Whitechapel)

Spitalfields starts somewhere in the warren of streets between Bishopsgate and Commercial Street. As soon as you come off the main thoroughfare you start running into groups of tourists being walked around by tour guides. One of the places you will often find a group of people being lectured by a guide is at the entrance to an unnamed service road at the side of White’s Row multi-storey car park. Groups of travellers from Japan, the States, Germany or even from the English provinces stand here in rapt attention, only moving to lift their camera viewfinders up to their eyes and take a shot. They are gripped by this unprepossessing street because it was once Dorset Street, ‘the worst street in London’ and there, by the steps to the office block, was Miller’s Court, the scene of Jack the Ripper’s last and most brutal killing of Mary Jane Kelly on November 9 1888. Hawksmoor’s Christchurch is just around the corner and Iain Sinclair writes that the building was a  "magnet to the archetypal murder myth of the late 19th century ... The whole karmic programme of Whitechapel in 1888 moves around the fixed point of Christ Church ..."  Hmmm.

The street was originally laid out in 1674 and was known as Datchet Street. The name was gradually corrupted to Dorset Street and the street became full of doss houses. By the 1880’s it was estimated that 1200 men slept every night in the lodging houses of a street that was only 400 feet long. Miller’s Court was built off an alleyway between Dorset Street and Brushfield Street to the north. Mary Kelly who worked as a prostitute rented a room in the court which she used to entertain her clients. She had taken a stout ginger haired man who wore a bowler hat and carried a can of beer back to the room just before midnight on the 8th November. By 2.00am she was back out on the streets and asking an acquaintance to give her sixpence. Whilst he was making his excuses Mary was approached by a man of ‘Jewish appearance’. She took the man home with her and was never seen alive again. Her landlord sent his assistant to collect the rent the following morning and it was the unfortunate rent collector who, getting no response to his knock on the door, opened the curtains through a broken window and discovered Kelly’s horribly mutilated corpse. Kelly was the only victim to be photographed at the scene of her murder – the photograph is grainy, blurred, faded and obviously Victorian but still harrowing and shocking. You can easily find it on the net if you want to see it.  

Fiona Rule's "The Worst Street in London" is an excellent account of the history of Dorset Street if you are interested. The photograph below was taken in 1902 as an illustration for Jack London's "People of the Abyss", a classic account of the east end and significant contribution to the east end myth and shows Dorset Street looking west from Commercial Street. Once one of the most degraded areas of the capital (“in the shadow of Christ's Church, at three o'clock in the afternoon, I saw a sight I never wish to see again….” wrote  Jack London in “People of the Abyss”, appalled at the squalid poverty he witnessed in what was meant to be the greatest city in the world) now an uber-trendy artists quarter where rich artists and corporate types who like to live somewhere a little bit edgy blow vast sums to buy houses and flats in the Georgian weavers houses and where the local colour is now provided by the local Bangladeshi community down Brick Lane.       

It may look like it has been there since 1888 at least but I’d be surprised if Verde & Co have been here for even 20 years. The veneer of age and gentle dilapidation is all carefully contrived. It is a rather expensive delicatessen serving the new well heeled residents of Spitalfields and the thousands of people who work in nearby offices. Just across the road is Spitalfields' market which has been through a similar face lift and now has restaurants as well as stalls selling designer clothes, arty crafty bric a brac and so on. (It does have a good second hand book stall though specialising in old Penguin paperbacks, most of which are only a couple of quid). Christchurch is at the end of the street, not looking at all like the axis of evil Iain Sinclair would have us believe it is. 

Donovan Brothers was an authentic east end business at 46 Crispin Street. It was founded in the 1830’s by Jeremiah and Dennis O’Donovan who came to Spitalfields from Dublin via Liverpool to escape the economic collapse of Ireland during the potato famine, and is still going strong, in Leyton rather than Crispin Street though. 

The foundations for Christ Church were started in the summer of 1714. It took over 14 years and £40,000 to complete the church which was consecrated in July 1729. Spitalfields lay in the large medieval parish of Stepney which also included Poplar, Bethnal Green, Wapping, Shadwell and Limehouse. In 1710 the Church Convocation, in its report on parishes that needed new churches, had reported that Stepney had 86,500 inhabitants, one parish church and two Anglican chapels-of-ease. In stark comparison the non-conformists had an estimated 19 meeting houses. The church commissioners agreed that the parish needed four new churches built. All four were eventually built, three were designed by Nicolas Hawksmoor, Christ Church, St George’s-in-the-East and St Anne’s at Limehouse.

Often cited as Hawksmoor’s masterpiece but even at the time it was built it was already out of fashion. The Palladian critic James Ralph wrote, a mere 5 years after it was consecrated, wrote that the ’monstrous expense’ lavished on it had resulted in the erection of ’one of the most absurd piles in Europe’. Even in the 20th century Nicholas Pevsner called it ‘ugly’. Hawksmoor’s original design, in so far as it can be reconstructed from the extant drawings, did not include either the Tuscan portico or the gothic looking steeple (see above).   

When Gilbert and George moved into Fournier Street, it was because the monthly rent was £16, and the landlords didn't mind whether you slept in the building or used it as a studio. The area was run-down, but, says Gilbert, "totally magic, romantic". Fournier Street was occupied by buttonmakers, furriers and hat-makers, and the area was Jewish. "The front doors were open all day," says George. "All the windows were open, so people would speak to each other from one side of the street to the other. Extraordinary antique behaviour."

"This area has been everything. It's been a Roman cemetery, it's been part of the hospital for the returning Crusaders. It's been a manufacturing base for guns which, curiously, was staffed entirely by Germans. "In between the Jews and the Bangladeshis, it was briefly Maltese, then Somali. It was extraordinary when it was Maltese because they all had Alsatian dogs, they kept ferrets, they played cards all day."Their London centres around Fournier Street, which is now seen as a masterpiece of early Georgian architecture, just as Gilbert and George are hailed as pioneers of the East End art scene. "George used to teach in Hoxton in 1967," says Gilbert. "In the evening, when we came back, my God." "All the businesses were totally shuttered," says George. "Totally deserted - scary. You could either have sex with a stranger or get beaten up. Those were the only two choices. And that was only Hoxton Square!"

"It's extraordinary to think that within walking distance you can find the tomb of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism - the tomb of George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, of Daniel Defoe, author of one of the few books in the world which is never out of print, John Bunyan, and William Blake," says George. "Only one grave has a jam-jar of flowers - William Blake". "We rather like John Bunyan," says Gilbert, "because we feel that's what we did - Pilgrim's Progress. Every year we have to fight all the moral dilemmas in ourselves."

To explore this further, Gilbert and George take me on a tour. The first stop is the mosque on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane. "That was the synagogue when we were students," says George. "The posh synagogue at that." "It was a French church," says Gilbert. "A Huguenot church. They tried to convert Jewish people to Christianity. It didn't work."

Alastair McKay, Evening Standard 31 Jan 2007 

The name Spitalfields is a contraction of ‘Hospital Fields’ , the fields being ones that lay in medieval times to the east of the priory of  the New Hospital of St Mary without Bishopgate which presumably stood just outside the city walls (‘without’ in the sense of ‘there is a green hill far away without a city wall’).  Brick Lane runs from Bethnal Green, down through Spitalfields and ends almost at Whitechapel  Road. It was originally called Whitechapel Lane and took its current name from the brick and tile works that grew up in the area to take advantage of the local brick earth deposits.  As well as bricks brewing was big business. The most famous was Truman’s Black Eagle brewery (see picture below).  The area has always had a large immigrant population, Huguenot’s in the 18th Century, the Irish and then Ashkenazi Jews in the 19th and Bengalis in the 20th.  Today Brick Lane is the heart of Banglatown, the street signs are written in Sylheti as well as English and every other shop is an Indian restaurant.  

If you get on a walking tour you’ll be shown the brewery and the railway bridge, whatever recent street art is worth looking at and someone will point out the brickwork bas relief high on the façade of the Sheraz Balti House that tells you that this used to be the Frying Pan public house. It was here is this pub that 43 year olf Polly Nichols, the first of the rippers victims, spent the last evening of her life.  She left the pub at 12.30am and tried to get a bed at a lodging house in Thrawl Steet ( the pub stood at the corner of Thrawl Street and Brick Lane) but was thrown out when it transpired she didn’t have the necessary four pence needed.  She was seen on Whitechapel Road at 2.30 but an hour later her body was discovered at Bucks Row, a few hundred yards away, with her throat cut and her abdominal area viciously slashed probably after she was already dead.  

From Brick Lane I walk down to the Whitechapel Road and make my way to St George's-in-the-East via Cannon Street Road, crossing the Highway (formerly known as the Ratcliffe Highway), Commercial Road and Cable Street.

This piece was originally written and published on Flickr in November/December 2011. 

Sunday, 28 January 2018

London's Malign Geometry; A Hawksmoor Tour (Part 1 Bloomsbury to Bishopsgate)

Unusually I had a spare afternoon; a work appointment fell through at the last minute and I had almost all of the afternoon to myself. I was already in Westminster so this was the opportunity to take myself on the Hawksmoor tour I'd promised myself. I had just read Iain Sinclair’s ‘Lud Heat’, his book of poems and short prose pieces published in 1975, in which he created the dark legend of Nicholas Hawksmoor (a legend exploited to the full by Peter Ackroyd in his novel ‘Hawksmoor’ and Alan Moore in his graphic novel ‘From Hell’.) In ‘Lud Heat’ Sinclair sets out a theory that the 8 Hawksmoor churches along with a number of pyramids and obelisks dotted around London form a sacred geometry of power lines in the shape of an ancient Eygptian Hieroglyph  "Eight churches give us the enclosure, the shape of fear; ... erected over a fen of undisclosed horrors, white stones laid upon the mud and dust" This ‘enclosure’ covers the ancient city and its Roman temples dedicated to Mithras, its plague pits and cemeteries, its prisons and places of execution and the scenes of its most notorious crimes, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 and the Whitechapel murders, the Jack the Ripper killings, of 1888.  The Ratcliffe Highway Murders happened almost in the shadow thrown by the massive tower of Hawksmoor’s St George-In-The-East in Shadwell. His Christ Church in Spitalfields was, according to Sinclair a "magnet to the archetypal murder myth of the late 19th century ... The whole karmic programme of Whitechapel in 1888 moves around the fixed point of Christ Church ..." Obviously none of this is coincidence, it is the result of the malign forces summoned by Hawksmoor’s mysterious geometry, concentrating evil and darkness in the East End of London.  Although he has a febrile imagination it is hard to believe that a man as sensible as Iain Sinclair really believes all this twaddle. But the myth has gained some currency and Hawksmoor, a protégée of Christopher Wren’s, has acquired all the allure of darkness and mystery as a result.

There are 6 Hawksmoor churches (Sinclair gets 8 by including 2 designed in collaboration with another architect but excluding his other great collaboration, the Western Towers of Westminster Abbey) which lie roughly in a straight line from St George’s in Bloomsbury to St Alfege’s in Greenwich. My afternoon off work seemed enough time to do the 6/7 mile walk from Bloomsbury to Greenwich until I remembered that (a) it gets dark at 4.00 now and (b) the Greenwich foot tunnel is closed making a direct walk impossible. I cut my walk down to 5 churches, St George’s, St Mary Woolnoth at Bank, Christ Church at Spitalfields, St George-in-the East at Shadwell, and St Anne’s at Limehouse. Even so I did the last two in the dark. Which meant I had to go back later to get more photographs.  

There is something odd about Nicholas Hawksmoor’s architecture. It is hard to put your finger on what exactly the oddity is in his six striking London churches. Their sheer scale is impressive; most of them are massive buildings, far bigger than the average London parish church. They are built of Portland stone which, when it has been cleaned, as many of them recently have been, is almost blindingly white even in weak London winter sun. Their style is idiosyncratic; no Hawksmoor church looks like any other church anywhere, even though they are composed, for the main part, out of standard classical elements (though they also almost all contain at least one highly unusual feature). I read somewhere that Hawksmoor built churches that had Gothic silhouettes out of classical elements. Certainly Spitalfields is a bit like that being a spired church but I’m not sure about the others. St George’s in Bloomsbury has a very distinctive stepped tower, almost a ziggurat or a Mayan pyramid. Hawksmoor based it on a written description of the mausoleum at Halicarnassus by Pliny (the portico is based on the Temple of Dionysus at Ballbeck in the Lebanon) and has a statue of George the First in a Roman toga at the top and lions and unicorns, symbolishing the victory over the first Jacobite rising, gambolling around the base. The Lions and Unicorns were recently reinstated, the originals having fallen off in the 1880’s I believe.

St George’s, Bloomsbury was the last of Hawksmoor’s churches. Work started on it in 1716 and it was consecrated by the Bishop of London on the 28th January 1730. The church was built at the request of the residents of fashionable Bloomsbury who petitioned the Church Commissioners for a new parish. Bloomsbury belonged to the parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields, the church stands a couple of hundred metres away from St George’s. Those two hundred metres though were occupied by the Rookery, one of London’s most notorious districts, home to every type of lowlife imaginable; whores, bawds, thieves, drunkards, murderers, cut-purses, fences……the area is portrayed in Hogarth’s “Gin Lane”. The tower of St Georges is clearly identifiable in the background, just below the pawnbrokers golden balls. The church has been recently restored back to its original glory thanks to British vice (gambling money from the Heritage Lottery fund) and American philanthropy from Anglophile multi-billionaire Andrew Mellon’s estate.

Although quite a lot is known about Nicolas Hawksmoor’s professional life, very little is known of his private life or his personality and for that reason he remains a relatively enigmatic figure. He was born in 1661 or 1662 at East Drayton in Nottinghamshire. He probably went to grammar school and he worked first as a Judge’s clerk before moving to London at the age of 18 to work as a domestic clerk for Sir Christopher Wren, Surveyor of Works to King Charles II. Hawksmoor remained closely associated with Wren for the rest of his employers life. His duties within his mentors household changed and he became almost exclusively involved in working on Wren’s architectural projects. He was senior draftsman on the reconstruction of St Paul’s for more than 19 years and he worked on the construction of the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich. In 1699 he met Vanbrugh and worked with him on the Earl of Carlisle’s home at Castle Howard and the Duke of Marlborough’s Bleinham Palace. He did independent work in Oxford and Cambridge, including the remodelling of All Soul’s College in Oxford and designed the two West Towers of Westminster Abbey (which most people assume are the same age of the rest of the medieval building but are in fact only 300 years old). But his most celebrated achievements are the six London churches he built following the 1711 Act of Parliament requiring 50 new churches to be built in the capital and its suburbs. The act set up a commission, headed by Sir Christopher Wren to direct the work. Wren appointed Hawksmoor to work on designing and building the new churches. Only 12 of the 50 were built by the time the commission was wound up in 1733; 6 of them exclusive Hawksmoor creations, and two others designed in collaboration with John James (who was another of the commissioners).

Hawksmoor’s work wasn’t always appreciated. Horace Walpole called St George’s “a masterpiece of absurdity” (though, to be fair, he also said that Hawksmoor’s Mausoleum at Castle Howard was so beautiful it would tempt one to be buried alive), the London Guide of 1876 described it was the “the most pretentious and ugliest edifice in the metropolis”, a sentiment echoed by Pevsner who also described it as ugly. After arousing a fair amount of controversy in his own lifetime, in the 19th century and for much of the 20th century Hawksmoor aroused only indifference. By the 1950’s Christ Church at Spitalfields was scheduled for demolition.   

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: 'Stetson!
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
T.S. Eliot - The Wasteland

The photo above is looking down King William Street with St Mary Woolnoth on the corner. It is, along with Christ Church at Spitalfields, generally acknowledged as Hawksmoor’s masterpiece. In Peter Ackroyd’s novel the architect bludgeons a colleague to death as a human sacrifice and drops the body into the foundations of St Mary’s. There are no bodies around St Mary’s now. Between 1897 and 1900 the City and South London railway built Bank tube station beneath the church. They had originally been given permission to demolish the church but a public outcry caused a rethink. The company has to restrict itself to using only the subsoil on the site. They were forced to purchase the crypt and to remove the bones for reburial at the City of London Cemetery in Manor Park. The church structure was supported on steel beams and girders to allow the excavation of lift and staircase shafts for the station directly beneath the floor of the building.   

From Bank it is a short walk up Cornhill, to Gracechurch Street and on to Bishopsgate. One of the principal streets in the City of London Bishopsgate is named after one of the seven gates in the original London wall. The gate had existed, in one form or another, since London was a Roman city but it was demolished in 1760. By this time the walls were redundant and the gates an obstruction to the movement of traffic in what was then the world’s biggest city. 46,000 people work in Bishopsgate ward but there are only 48 residents. It is an area of offices, shops and stations – Liverpool Street is about halfway up it. It was the site of an IRA truck bomb in April 1993 which killed a journalist, injured 40 and caused over £1 billion of damage. It caused so much havoc in fact that Lloyds of London looked like the insurance payouts might sink them, triggering a crisis in the insurance business. As I walked up the street an empty Marlboro packet perched on the red plastic bench of a bus stop caught my eye. Like a dosser I couldn’t help giving it a quick shake to make sure there wasn’t a forgotten cigarette inside it. It is over three months since I stopped but I still get the odd urge now and then – well, more than now and then to be honest. Two or three times a day. Even more irritatingly I dream about cigarettes quite regularly. I dream about buying them, about finding forgotten packets in drawers or rucksacks, about being given them. I sometimes dream that I’ve smoked one and find myself in a mild panic about being found out. All these dreams make me feel guilty for having given in to temptation. I never dream about actually lighting one up though and smoking it, mores the pity. At least that might be a substitute of a sort.

The picture below is also taken on Bishopsgate. The Golden Beaver is at 60-64 Bishopsgate above what was Hudson House, the home of the Hudson Bay Company. The office block in the background is Heron Tower at 230 metres the tallest building in the city of London and the third tallest building in London (after the Shard and Canary Wharf).

To get to Christ Church, Spitalfields, the third Hawksmoor church on my afternoon tour, you pass Dirty Dicks and turn right into Middlesex Street (the pub gets its name from Nathanial ‘Dick’ Bentley an 18th century merchant who refused to wash himself or clean his premises after his fiancée died on the eve of their wedding. His house and warehouse/shop became so filthy that he became a celebrity. He died in 1809. A pub called the Old Jerusalem cashed in on Bentley’s celebrity by changing its name to Dirty Dicks and recreating the look of Bentley’s warehouse in the salon bar, including dust, cobwebs and dead cats. They are still there today but hermetically sealed for health and safety reasons in this more fastidious age in a glass cabinet.) 

This piece was originally written and published on Flickr in November/December 2011. 

Monday, 15 January 2018

All the names - Valentines Park, Ilford

The strategy of thwarting mortality and getting yourself remembered by inscribing your name on some sort of memorial has been around since the Assyrians invented cuneiform and the Egyptian's hieroglyphics. The Parks Service of Redbridge Council aim to assist anyone wanting not to be forgotten after their demise with their tree sponsorship programme. This offers an opportunity for sponsors to celebrate “a special occasion, a new birth, or a memorial to a lost one.” Almost all sponsored trees are memorials to the deceased; there are so many in fact that Valentines Park in Ilford is starting to become something of a surrogate cemetery (albeit one without bodies). Most of the little metal plaques standing beside saplings of varying degrees of health and vigour are memorials created by the relatives of people who have been cremated. Many crematoriums have memorial gardens attached but this is often just a lawn on which grieving relatives are only allowed to plant a small wooden cross which gets easily lost alongside hundreds of other identical wooden crosses. Sponsoring a tree gives the bereaved something more akin to a traditional grave to focus on. One of the few rules set by the Parks Service about sponsored trees is that “no further items of flowers or memorabilia are attached or placed around” them but the rule is often ignored. The charge for sponsoring a tree is £200 plus VAT but if you want a metal plaque with an inscription that is another £100 plus VAT; around £360 in total, much cheaper than a grave.  

If you want something more substantial than a metal plaque and a sapling you have the option of paying for a new memorial bench at a cost of £1200 (plus VAT) including plaque or inscription. “The majority of these benches are often sponsored by loved ones in loving memory of those who once enjoyed the beauty of visiting our parks and were a part of the parks community,” says the council. If the cost seems prohibitive then there is a cost effective alternative, a refurbished bench with a new plaque is a mere £350 plus VAT.  

'Generations to come will stroll beneath trees in Ilford's parks grateful for the shade but oblivious to the fact that some of the town's leading citizens spent the best part of a gloomy, raw December morning in 1937 planting them,’ said the Ilford Recorder of 2 December 1937. An avenue of trees was planted to commemorate the coronation of King George VI earlier in the year. The idea came from a local woman, a Miss Wynne-Jones, and taken up by the Men of the Trees, an early environmental organisation set up by Richard St Barbe Baker to promote reforestation (one of his more ambitious ideas was to reclaim the Sahara desert by strategic plating of forests). St Barbe Baker turned up in person to make a speech at the December planting of the avenue. Local dignitaries were commemorated by hefty cast iron plaques bearing their names planted at the side of the tree. The trees are now mature, many of the plaques are still there (though some are broken and others have been pilfered by scrap metal thieves).  The photo shows the plaque of Councillor Adam Wilde of Ilford Urban District Council. Councillor Wilde has long since returned to the dust of which he was made and his reputation and story have joined them and become totally extinguished. But his name lives on, cast in something more durable than collective memory, on his plaque.    

Professor Sasha Gogolin died of lung cancer at the age of just 45. He was born in Tiblisi in 1965, the only child of two physicists. He studied at Moscow State University and the Lebedev Institute and then became a research associate in Moscow, before moving to Aachen, Grenoble and finally London. His “formidable reputation in his field of condensed matter theory” won him a Lectureship at Imperial College. He was the co-author of the book “Bosonization and Strongly Correlated Systems”.  
“Outside physics Sasha was an avid reader and he liked nothing better than to enjoy his secluded garden in Ilford,” says his obituary on the Imperial College website.

Alan Hooker was born in Teignmouth in Devon but his family moved to London when he was still a boy. At school he represented London at discus at an event in Paris. He studied physics at University and later worked in the research department of Ilford Limited, manufacturers of photographic film and paper. When the company closed its office in Ilford and moved to Cheshire Alan arranged alternative employment as a University Lecturer working on computer graphics and networking. His real love was botany (he even married someone called Cherry), particularly lilies and he was a leading light in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lily Group, successfully running their international seed list.  

In the Holocaust Memorial Garden is a cenotaph to Leon Greenman (who is buried in the Marlow Road cemetery in East Ham). Leon was born in 1910 in Whitechapel and grew up in Rotterdam and Forest Gate. He was a survivor of Birkenau and Auschwitz (prisoner number 98288), unlike his wife Esther and his 3 year old son Barney, who died in the gas chambers at Birkenau. In fact and one other man were the only survivors out of a transport of 700 Jews from the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands. After the war Leon dedicated his life to the tasks of remembrance and education about the holocaust (work for which he was awarded an OBE. Even as an old man local fascists threw bricks through his windows and sent him Christmas cards telling him that he would make a lovely lampshade. Some people simply are not educable.   

William Peter Griggs was born in Brick Lane in 1849 and worked as a bargeman on the Thames in his younger days. He had a head for business and became a builder. He built whole estates in Ilford and Upminster and sealed his bid for respectability by becoming a councillor on Ilford District Council in 1899, chairman of the council in 1910 and Conservative member of parliament for Ilford in 1918. He was knighted in 1916. He was a local philanthropist but liked to make sure that the recipients of his charity knew who the provider was. In Valentines Park he built and paid for the clock tower which bears a plaque with his name and the date of his largesse, and this drinking fountain presented in 1898 which has lost the metal letters bearing his name, which can only now be dimly made out in the unfinished surface of the marble.