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Notes and news — February 1996

Signs of old age

Presumably because of the refurbishment of London Underground stations, the auctioneer firm of Brooks held their sale of signs and ephemera in a rather chilly marquee in the forecourt of the Natural History Museum last December.

The last lot was to have been a four-car unit of a Central Line train, complete with fittings manufactured by Metro-Cammell for designated 1962 stock. Unfortunately it did not reach the reserve price of £10,000 to £15,000; bidding stopped at £4,500 and it appeared it was more profitable to be sold for scrap. Nearly a thousand lots were whisked through at 50-second intervals by a relay of auctioneers.

Of particular interest to most bidders attending were the 'bullseye' signs often in three parts with the blue and white reversed out lettering and the red semi-circles fitting above and below the particular station name. In the main, London Underground seem to be replacing many of their station logo signs with 'roundels' which is the same logo but purely a stencil with the appropriate name on plain enamel sheeting.

'Bullseyes' of a smaller diameter seem to be appearing on some of the central London stations which have been refurbished which look quite aesthetically pleasing, such as Green Park, Earl's Court, and others.

Of particular interest to me were my local station signs. Everything was laid out for inspection and the signs were scattered all over the floor beside the sitting bidders. Many of the signs were leaning six or seven up against the wall. It also included diagrammatic signs on really large enamel fascias, some of which seemed to weigh a ton. This meant a sort of hop-scotch approach for me, in my quest for North Harrow between the narrow spaces with the signs laid out like rugs on the floor.

Meanwhile, the auctioneer droned on with inflexible purpose. 'Did I hear £20? It's against you, sir, at the back for Debden' before racing onto the next item. Who, I wondered, would want 'a platform clock indicated l-12 with 13-24 inset marked 'Blick' electric 60mm diameter'? Or would 'litter bin, wall mounted steel with aluminium lining post office red' arouse any great desire for possession?

It was interesting to see how much more brisk the bidding was for the signs relating to the stations in the west rather than the other side of London. Some went for £10, some even had no bid. Ruislip Manor went for £80! Too hot for me!

There was no bid for several items. 'Lot 935', for instance, was 'Platform Bench — wall-mounted tractor seat', yet a track gauge utilised for checking width of track fetched £20. The clocks were popular although they were of the 'impulse' type and were quite unsuitable to connect to a mains electricity supply.

As the prices were not so keen as imagined, more was brought home than anticipated.

Where I keep these signs now will have to be the leading question. 'Piccadilly Line Earl's Court' does seem a little incongruous by my garden fence, although it does nicely cover a break in the interwoven panelling. Also the instructions to change trains at Harrow on the Hill sits uncomfortably under one of my fruit trees. Geoff Donald

London Canal Cycleway study

British Waterways is setting up a study group that includes officials from the Department of Transport to see if the canal towpath in London can effectively be improved to encourage more use by cyclists.

The study group will look at the possibility of setting up a system where walkers would have the canal edge and cyclists the inner edge with clear delineation between cyclists and pedestrians. This would involve towpath widening in some areas. The existing rights of anglers and walkers would be preserved.

GLIAS has made representations to the Department of Transport and to British Waterways. First, we stressed the historic context of the canals, the need to preserve as much as possible of this and that any changes should be appropriate. Secondly, we expressed the hope that canalside structures such as lock cottages and back pumping stations were not at risk. There are few enough of these in London as it is. Lastly, we had reservations about walkers having the outside edge of the towpath with the risk of children falling into the canal.


Thames Tunnel saga

Monuments that one thinks of as safe and inviolable sometimes come unexpectedly under threat. Such has been the case of Sir Marc Brunel's Thames Tunnel which for 125 years has carried the East London Railway between Rotherhithe and Wapping in East London. Some of our members have fond memories of conducted walks under the river, after the traction current had been switched off at one o'clock in the morning. Since March 1995, however, the tunnel has been closed for 'repairs'.

The heroic struggle to construct the world's first river crossing tunnel is graphically described in Tom Rolt's biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, while two recent papers have delved more deeply into geological and technical circumstances. In summary, Marc Brunel developed his tunnelling shield to construct this first large-bore underwater tunnel, through the soft ground of the Woolwich and Reading Beds. A thick protective clay layer was expected from borings, but a band of silt and sand was found within this which ran and caused the overlying clay to settle and fracture, so letting in large quantities of foul river water and poisonous methane and hydrogen sulphide from the polluted river bed. There were five major inundations, staunched by dumping thousands of tons of clay in bags.

In one irruption, six men were drowned and Brunel's son, Isambard, the resident engineer, narrowly escaped with his life. The shield was changed for a stronger one near mid-river, a remarkable operation during which the soil was partly supported by long iron pins driven into the face as anchors, a technique only recently re-invented. After 18 years of exceptional perseverance, including a seven-year break for lack of funds, the tunnel was opened for pedestrian traffic in March 1843. Intended spiral ramps for vehicles were never constructed, and the proprietors eventually sold to the East London Railway Company, which opened its line from New Cross Gate to Wapping in 1869.

Thames Tunnel, Wapping station. © Robert Mason, 28.3.12 The tunnel comprises two horseshoe-arched passageways within a rectangular mass of brickwork 38 feet wide and 22 feet high overall, its crown up to 50 feet below Trinity High Water. The interior is lined with tiles and stucco, classically modelled, with Doric half-columns in arched cross-passages. These have been considerably hacked about later, and the architecture obscured by soot from steam trains. There is a concealed drainage system of circumferential channels within the lining, so hardly a drip appears on the surface — the surrounding strata are in any case relatively impermeable.

In the autumn of 1994 the present owners, London Underground Ltd (LUL), announced that the East London Line would be closed for seven months in 1995 for the construction of an interchange station with the Jubilee Line Extension and to cure some leaks. We thought little of this, for we knew that the approach cuttings built by Sir John Hawkshaw through alluvial gravels were extremely wet, in contrast to the under-river tunnel.

In December 1994, however, the magazine 'New Civil Engineer' discovered that LUL intended to line Sir Marc Brunel's Thames Tunnel with shotcrete and a waterproof membrane. The original lining would be removed and the cross-arches blocked up. (Indeed, they had already been hacking into the lining for exploratory purposes, and blocking up the arches.) LUL claimed the tunnel was deteriorating and leaking badly, that a rising water table was a problem and that the brickwork was on the point of failure according to calculations. All these points were doubted by experts, and later shown to be totally false. Various 'exceptional circumstances' were in due course invoked, for instance that the tunnel might become damaged by a ship's anchor! A process of elimination led some of us to the real cause of concern, a sensitive one which was not publicly admitted for many months.

English Heritage (EH) was embarrassed to find that, although the Wapping portal was listed Grade II, and the pumping engine house at Rotherhithe was a scheduled ancient monument, the tunnel itself had no statutory protection. EH promptly applied for listing but the Secretary of State for National Heritage at first indicated that the tunnel did not meet the necessary criteria! However, after concerted lobbying by informed and influential persons, including letters to The Times from home and abroad, the listing of the tunnel in Grade II* was announced late on Friday 24 March 1995. (Many consider that Grade I would be more appropriate.) This was a few hours before the works were due to commence. Thereupon, LUL had to apply for listed building consent, while English Heritage was able to appoint a small panel of eminent engineers to advise it and enter into dialogue with LUL and its consultants.

It is understood that the panel had the utmost difficulty in obtaining essential information since LUL were under direction from the Home Office not to discuss the heart of the matter, and there was little meeting of minds. The two sides were able to agree that a short length beneath the land at Rotherhithe need not be lined in any event, and this was incorporated in the otherwise unmodified scheme which the Planning Committee of the London Docklands Development Corporation approved conditionally at the end of May 1995. Critically, English Heritage had advised the committee and the national amenity societies that it was the panel's conclusion that defects and risks warranted major intervention and that there was no practical alternative to the proposals. This was incorrect and later EH retracted this advice.

After much technical work, the panel's full report was released on 24 July. It found the tunnel in good condition and expressed considerable doubt on the need for lining of concrete against terrorist attack, while regretting the lack of time for definitive tests. It was also seriously concerned that an impermeable, undrained lining would induce erosion of the brickwork. Paradoxically, the Secretary of State for the Environment announced he would not 'call in' the scheme that same day, without having seen the report.

In October, LUL came up with a costly 'compromise' scheme, still lined but with shuttered concrete simulating the pilasters and cross-arches of the original lining and with internal drainage. This was sufficient for the chairman of the panel to withdraw his objections in principle, and the new scheme passed the planning committee on 28 November, subject to the approval of details, there being considerable pressure to get the Tunnel open again.

This is not the end of the matter. As at December 1995, it seems to be acknowledged that the lining will have to be stripped, but there are strong technical misgivings about LUL's scheme. For instance it would in places cut into and weaken the existing brickwork, and an impervious lining could produce dangerous water pressures if its built-in drainage system failed to function at any time. As the present submission falls far short of the level of detail expected for listed building consents, the Victorian Society and the Georgian Group are keeping close contact with English Heritage to ensure that the details are not approved until the experts are satisfied that further long-term damage will not be caused by the works.

The case raises broader issues, and the Victorian Society and the Newcomen Society are together pursuing the statutory protection of other great tunnels, as at Harecastle, Standedge, Kilsby and Box. On the recording front, the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) has powers to record listed buildings before they are altered. Until the listing, its photographer was only allowed through the tunnel in the company of a large group of farewell visitors. RCHME has since been back, and will be granted access to the works as the lining is stripped and features of the original brickwork are revealed. Resources are lacking for full archaeological recording, and the planners consider the tunnel falls outside the guidance of PPG16, but by negotiation various survey work to be done for LUL should now be deposited in the National Monuments Record. Malcolm Tucker


The next gasworks

In 1822 Greenwich Vestry had heard about new fangled gas lighting and thought it might be a good thing which could cut crime and save on the rates. A proposal for gas lighting had been put forward locally by a Mr Hedley. The Vestry thought that a more profitable scheme could be set up with their support.

I have previously mentioned that there were a number of people around then who were in the business of providing ready-made gasworks. Two submitted tenders to the Greenwich Vestry — Mr Gostling and Mr Hedley. Mr Gostling was selected. He was building gasworks elsewhere in Kent and the Vestry guaranteed a contract for 14 years. He formed the Ravensbourne Gas Company, and set about building a works. Mr Hedley objected. Irregularities, to say the least of it, were found.

This is not the place to write about local government scandals — the legal challenges, the parliamentary petitions, the writ of mandamus and new Vestry elections. All I can say is that before a cubic inch of gas was produced the works had been taken over by the Bankside-based Phoenix Company. They renegotiated the agreement with Greenwich and a number of pamphleteers produced some amazing estimates of the amount of ratepayers' money which had been lost.

The trouble with company minute books — whether written 170 years ago or not — is that while those who were at the meeting knew what it was about they don't always make it very plain. Phoenix already had land in Greenwich where they built a completely new works but when they minuted that the 'Greenwich Works' was sinking into the Creek, it is not at all clear which site they are talking about. In 1828, as soon as the new works was finished 'the old' Gostling works was closed — gas had been made there for a maximum of four years!

This whole saga leaves a lot of loose ends. What, exactly, was Gostling playing at? (Or is that a silly question?) What was the agreement that Phoenix came to with Hedley? And for that matter a number of other gas companies and entrepreneurs mentioned in their minutes? Why did they so quickly close down this brand new gas-making plant?

When I first started to write this article I had assumed that the Ravensbourne company site was that known as 'the holders in Roan Street' — holders which can still be seen in the Geographers' A-Z although, in fact now occupied by local authority housing. Subsequently I have been told by Brian Sturt that Phoenix had another site in Norway Street — adjacent to their main works and to the untrained eye part of it. Research in the Greenwich rate books for the 1820s has proved ambiguous but I think Brian is right. If so — then what and who built the Roan Street site? Gostling's works site was rented out — advertised in 1828 as 'near the river Ravensbourne with brick buildings and a lofty chimney, suitable for an iron foundry'. The first tenant was Mr Beneke, a German chemist who had a close relationship with both the early gas industry and the extensive adjacent copperas works. It was later occupied by the steam-engine builder, Joyce. The gas company itself used part of the site for a variety of purposes. If it is the Norway street site then a holder tank existed on it, and was used as an aggregate store until only a few years ago. Mary Mills
This account is compiled almost entirely from archive material in Greenwich Local History Department, Greater London Record Office and the British Library, plus a few details from W F D Garton, 'History of the South Metropolitan Gas Co' (Gas World, 2/1952 et seq), and the riveting, Non di Ricordo. The Metallic Influence of Gas upon Lamp-posts (no date, no author)

GLIAS visit to Welwyn Garden City

On Friday afternoon 3 November 1995, a party of 11 GLIAS members visited the Second Garden City by train (GLIAS Newsletter October 1995). We first made a perambulation to the east of the railway, visiting an industrial area which includes the famous Shredded Wheat factory, still very much in business and producing unmistakable baking aromas. Just to the south east along Broadwater Road three large sheds (sectional factories) were noted, which had once attracted embryonic companies looking for modestly priced premises. Murphy Radio were here, and in the period 1929-32 the British racing car driver Tim Birkin of Le Mans fame had his Bentleys supercharged in two of the sheds.

South of the Shredded Wheat factory is the site of the British Instructional Films Studio, which started work at the end of the 1920s and closed in the 1950s. A large building with an arched roof dating from 1928 survives from the film studio days.

To the north east along Bridge Road is the site of perhaps the second most famous of the Welwyn Garden City factories, that of the Norton Grinding Wheel Company, opened in 1930. At one time this was the town's largest firm but it closed in 1982. The company Norton Abrasives is still there.

We then walked west along Bridge Road to the site of the Cherry Tree public house originally opened in 1921. This was replaced in 1932 and that building demolished in 1991. There is now a large supermarket here. Immediately to the south is a multi-storey car park and we made our way up inside this and thence over a footbridge to the recently completed Howard Centre. This is attached to the present-day railway station.

By 1926 the LNER deemed it profitable to open a mainline station for the new Garden City, and a station building was erected at the end of Howardsgate. Services commenced on 20 September. The new station had two island platforms and served the Dunstable and Hertford branches (which started from Hatfield) as well as the main London to Peterborough route. In 1988 the station building at the east end of Howardsgate was cleared away and the present station in the Howard Centre opened in September 1990. After a brief inspection of the shopping facilities, the GLIAS visit proceeded to Howardsgate and Parkway.

Now we were able to walk on the lawns and really feel we were in a Garden City. This is the heart of Welwyn. It is very pleasant in summer. We noted that most of the former private houses on the west side of Parkway are currently in use for offices. At the north end of Parkway is the Campus, and after a brief call at the public library here to check that we were expected, a fairly lengthy walk was taken westwards along the disused railway that once ran to Luton and Dunstable.

This line opened between what was to become Welwyn Garden City and Luton in 1860 and was a branch of the Great Northern (London and York direct) Railway which became part of the LNER in 1923. As mentioned above the Dunstable branch started at Hatfield. In the early days of the Garden City there was no railway station on the main line itself. Between 1920 and 1926 the only rail service was to Welwyn Garden City Halt on the Hatfield to Luton & Dunstable branch. This original station was just to the north west of Hunter's Bridge near the site of the Cherry Tree public house.

At this stage the reader may be getting a little confused and a digression into local railway geography is called for. Before the building of Welwyn Garden City the railway map of the locality was somewhat unusual in that the branch lines to Dunstable and Hertford both started at Hatfield two-and-a-half miles to the south and ran parallel and close to the main line as far as what was later to become the Second Garden City. The Dunstable branch was on the west side of the main line and the Hertford branch to the east. When these two subsidiary routes reached the area of the Garden City they branched off to the west and east respectively. At the time the branches were built there would have been no point in having a station where the lines to Dunstable and Hertford diverged, as it was open country all round with almost no population.

The junction was concentrated at Hatfield where the branch from St Albans joined the main line, and there was an engine shed. In its heyday Hatfield was an important interchange station with quite a grand refreshment room. It is now difficult to imagine all this local railway activity which ceased about 30 years ago. The lines to Hertford and Dunstable were constructed by an independent company formed in 1853 which was absorbed by the GN in 1861. It should be remembered that before the Second World War there was no Hatfield New Town. Hatfield Station served Hatfield House, home of the Earl of Salisbury, and (old) Hatfield, which was quite a small place.

There was a station called Welwyn, but that was on the main line north of the Garden City site beyond the great Welwyn Viaduct, which carries the GNR northwards to Peterborough across the valley of the River Mimram. This viaduct by William Cubitt is one of the major civil engineering features of the railway from London to York. It is 1,490 feet long with a maximum height of 89 feet and was opened in August 1850. The old Welwyn station is now the site of Welwyn North. (Old) Welwyn village is about a mile from here to the north west.

Returning to the GLIAS visit, the pleasant autumnal walk along the ballasted trackbed of the disused railway to Luton and Dunstable led through quite a dramatic forest and proved a popular part of the afternoon's visit even if it was something of an uphill grind. This railway line closed in 1965 and its remains, together with a number of footpaths, gives access to Sherrardspark Wood, an extensive area of beautiful natural woodland of great interest to the naturalist. It is claimed to be the finest oak and hornbeam wood in Britain. In Sherrardspark Wood the land rises to 400 feet above sea level. Such rural delights so close to the City Centre are remarkable.

After our woodland walk we returned to the centre of Welwyn along Brockswood Lane and Bridge Road, which gave an opportunity to look at some of the housing. We passed through the remains of Handside, one of the original hamlets which has been absorbed by the Garden City and noted number 39 Bridge Road, a cottage dated 1604.

There are four other cottages here, numbers 48 and 50 are estate cottages, perhaps dating back as far as 1709 and numbers 52 and 54 were built by Lord Cowper for his estate in 1876.

Having developed an appetite, we took tea at John Lewis's department store. From the first floor window of the cafe one gets a good view of Parkway and the Campus. In 1921 the Welwyn Garden City Company opened its own department store as Welwyn Stores Ltd. on the opposite side of Parkway. More elaborate premises were then built on the east side of Parkway and opened in 1939. This store became a branch of the John Lewis Partnership from 1983.

It was now getting dark and some of us went to the public library and others caught a train back to London. Needless to say the local history room upstairs at the library is very well provided with books on Welwyn and the Garden City movement in general. A number of excellent leaflets have been produced which are an invaluable guide for the visitor to the Second Garden City. Looking at period photographs of Welwyn it is clear how recently much of the town centre was built. Even after the Second World War the land around Howardsgate was still largely green field sites. A good deal of what one sees today in the centre was built in the 1950s and 60s.

Richmond Ice Rink

There are now proposals to build a new ice rink at Richmond over the multi-storey car park at Richmond Station (GLIAS Newsletter April 1995).

Also included in the scheme would be ten-pin bowling and the ice could be covered for tennis, music and dancing. Work could start in one to two years' time, and the rink could open at the end of the century.

The cost, in the region of £5m, would be met by a developer. However, there are now alternative ice-skating facilities to the west of London, notably at Guildford, and £5m would only provide for a modest scheme in Richmond. Bob Carr

News from Crossness

For those of you who do not see a copy of 'The Crossness Engines Record' here is an update on what is happening at the northern extremity of the Erith marshes.

The most recent acquisitions have been a Merryweather steam fire pump from Stone House Hospital and a pair of Shone ejector sewage pumps from the Serpentine Lido in Hyde Park. While the Merryweather fire pump is not strictly concerned with sewage pumping and disposal, when it is restored it will make a very good exhibit in what is fast becoming a 'live' steam room. The Shone ejector is not one of the most impressive sewage pumping systems in appearance, they are however an integral part of sewage pumping history. The recovery and removal of both pieces was not without event.

The painting of the C.I. screens and top panels of the 'Octagon' continues and for those who have seen it recently, it will come as no surprise that many of our visitors wonder at the riot of colour. The replacement of the 'foliage and fruit' to the capitals of the columns of the 'Octagon' is under way now that a suitable means of fixing has been found.

The 'mining' team continue to remove the sand and fly-ash from around the pumps and have now started burrowing beneath the 'outboard' pump-plunger, and within the pump barrel. I am sure this dedicated team wish they could extract the material with the same ease that was used to deposit it but apart from the sheer physical effort, safety measures decree just how fast one can work.

Restoration continues in the fitting shop and the team there have produced a fine degree of finish on the 'bright-work' of 'Prince Consort'. Items are brought to a bright shine, coated with 'Rustillo' and either placed in store until required or re-instated on the engine. Work on the restoration and replacement of the hand-barring engine is well advanced and should be complete by the time you read this. Establishing the museum continues and at present is almost the work of one man who scours the country searching out toilet-pans, cisterns, chamber-pots, soap and toilet-roll holders, etc. He and the librarian seek any information on house plumbing and sanitation (if anyone has an unwanted book or sanitary equipment they care to donate, please contact me), and by next 'Open Day' it is hoped that the start of an exhibition of sanitation will be mounted.

When weather conditions permit, work continues on the gardens and paths to the south of the boilerhouse. On Tuesday 14 November a tree was planted in memory of Bob Guntrip, a worker who had served many years at the pumping station. Two of his sisters were in attendance at the tree-planting ceremony.

This is just a brief outline of some of the work that continues at Crossness Engines. To find out more, why not come and visit us, or join the Crossness Engines Trust and receive a regular copy of the 'Record'. 'Tosher'
Crossness Engines Trust. Website:

Camden Roundhouse

A full page in the Guardian newspaper's Arts section on 12 December 1995 was devoted to the Camden Roundhouse and traced the various attempts to put the building to some appropriate use which will comply with its Grade II Listed status — all attempts so far having either failed to get off the ground or else petered out after a few years.

The paper stated that in November 1995, the British Architectural Library Trust had exchanged contracts for the purchase of the building and has applied to the National Lottery Fund to use the building as an architectural library. Let's hope that this proposal has more success than its predecessors! Don Clow

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© GLIAS, 1996