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The complex of buildings found at Westminster is a little architecturally confusing. We have Westminster Abbey, clearly old from what you see inside it, Westminster Hall and the Palace of Westminster, which look similar, and Big Ben, which screams Victoriana. These buildings can easily blend together if you don’t look carefully and that blending was indeed the intention of the designers.

It’s pretty shocking that in 1834, not that long ago, we lost an enormous historical palace at Westminster which consisted of amazing medieval and early modern buildings. This ‘Old Palace’ was destroyed by a terrible fire and the only surviving buildings are the Cloisters of St Stephen’s, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, the Jewel Tower and most notably Westminster Hall.

Illustration of the Old Palace of Westminster in the reign of Henry VIII - Henry William Brewer, 1884

Illustration of the Old Palace of Westminster in the reign of Henry VIII – Henry William Brewer, 1884

The Westminster site was used as a residence for Kings of England since the 11th century and much was built and extended over the course of the next 500 years. The oldest part we can still see is Westminster Hall, which was built by William II. In 1295, the Model Parliament met at Westminster, beginning the tradition for all future parliaments of England.

Because the palace was not designed for intensive parliamentary use, drastic alterations were made to it between the 16th and 19th centuries. The palace must have looked a little dilapidated and in the 18th century there were calls for a new palace to be built. This clearly coincides with the fall in popularity of the medieval gothic architectural style. People preferred classical styles and Palladian additions were made. Most notable, Sir John Soane demolished the medieval House of Lords chamber and rebuilt it in the neo-classical style.

This period saw a backlash against the neo-classical style and this destruction of medieval buildings. Several key thinkers began to mourn the loss of the older gothic parts of the Palace of Westminster. Some architectural writers appreciated the aesthetics of England’s gothic buildings. Horace Walpole built his gothic house at Strawberry Hill in 1747 and described the style as ‘venerable’ and ‘charming’.

The enthusiasm for the style among architectural writers increased and many illustration collections and studies were published, including the influential Essays on Gothic Architecture by Thomas Warton and others, published in 1800. The cause was taken up by Auguste Pugin, who published Specimens of Gothic Architecture (1821) and Examples of Gothic Architecture (1831).

The fire of 1834

The fire of 1834 at the Palace of Westminster

The devastating fire at the palace must therefore be seen in this context. The fire was caused by an overheated stove beneath the House of Lords Chamber and raged overnight destroying almost everything. Many people helped fight the fire, preserving some of the buildings, but many watched the fire with glee, seeing it as a punishment for unpopular politicians. If you want to learn more about the fire itself, I recommend a podcast from the House of Commons – listen here.

Architects saw the fire as an opportunity to get rid of the hodgepodge of architectural styles that cluttered up the gothic. After the fire, parliament decided they needed a building more fit for purpose, but that emphasised the governments historical origins. Therefore, a competition was held for architects to redesign the palace in ‘either Gothic or Elizabethan’ style, to lessen the shock of the destruction.

An architectural struggle raged through the nineteenth century between classic and gothic adherents. In 1884 Robert Kerr gave a paper to the General Conference of Architects detailing this ‘architectural civil war’, describing how

at the moment when Barry in his Club-houses offered us a new version of Wren’s Classic, we threw it over and reverted to Gothic; and at the moment when Street in his Law Courts had brought Pugin’s Gothic to a supremacy, we now cast that aside and return to Classic.

In February 1836, Charles Barry’s neo-gothic proposal for the palace was accepted and he employed Augustus Pugin to design the gothic interior. Construction was finally completed in 1870. It was designed to look medieval and fit into the surrounding medieval buildings, while still providing space appropriate for the running of parliament.

The Palace of Westminster, 19th century

The Palace of Westminster, 19th century

I noticed a picture of a baby cage made it into the Metro the other day. It seems that this historical oddity is one that constantly comes in and out of the media and causes incredible public shock and outrage every time. It is amazing how attitudes change, so that something invented in the 1920s to do nothing but good now leaves us struggling to believe it ever happened.

In 1923 Emma Read patented the Portable Baby Cage. It was designed to solve the problem of large high rises in urban areas which left families with no open spaces to allow their young children to play. It was agreed that babies needed fresh air to maintain their health, so the baby cage was a simple and safe way to leave babies outside to enjoy the air. In the patent it is explained that:

It is well known that a great many difficulties rise in raising and properly housing babies and small children in crowded cities, that is to say from the health viewpoint. “With these facts in view, it is the purpose of this invention to provide an article of manufacture for babies and young children, to be suspended upon the exterior of a building adjacent an open window, wherein the baby or young child may be placed.

The cage could be suspended outside an open window of a flat, allowing the baby to sleep or play fully in the open air with wire mesh protecting it from falling. The baby cage was used in London during the 1930s, when in particular they were distributed to members of the Chelsea Baby Club ‘who have no gardens and live at the top of high buildings’, as documented by Getty.

The idea didn’t really catch on for many obvious reasons. Firstly the wire mesh looks awful and must have reminded mothers constantly that they were really locking their baby in a cage: and I’m sure the name didn’t help either. Secondly they look incredibly dangerous, with babies potentially suspended 200 feet from the ground. But you can see how exciting and fun it looks in this British Pathé film from 1953.

The baby cage has since made it into the annals of strange and horrific inventions of the twentieth century. However it’s important to try to see it from the perspective of the inventor, who was just trying to solve a problem. Still, it doesn’t seem likely to make a comeback any time soon!

I visited the Churchill War Rooms many years ago and since my memories of it were hazy, I thought I’d check it out and see how it had changed. I remembered looking in on the old rooms and had a general feeling that it was a pretty great day out.

I also remembered it as being quite small and cramped, so I only left myself an afternoon to visit. This has certainly changed. The first thing I would say to people thinking of visiting the Churchill War Rooms is: leave plenty of time! You could easily spend a whole day there now if you like to be thorough in museums – I had to rush through the last few things to get through it all before closing time.

I must have visited before 2003 as all I remembered was the basic suite of the cabinet war rooms. In 2003, the attraction received major redevelopment. A new suite of rooms, which had been occupied by Churchill, his wife and other associates, was restored and opened to the public. Also an enormous museum about the life and work of Winston Churchill was opened and in 2006 it won the Council of Europe Museum Prize.

The war rooms now have an excellent audio guide which takes your through the different rooms and explains how they were used during the war. The bunker began to be constructed in 1938 and started to be used just before the outbreak of war in 1939.

The first room you come to is the Cabinet Room, where Churchill and his cabinet and military officials met to discuss strategy. The room was left exactly as it was when the war ended in 1945 and it’s fascinating to see Churchill’s leather chair still in pride of place in front of the world map.

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Winston Churchill’s Cabinet Room

During the first year of the war, Neville Chamberlain only used the room once, but after Churchill became Prime Minister, he said  ‘this is the room from which I will direct the war’ and subsequently had 115 cabinet meetings there.

Another interesting room is the Transatlantic Telephone Room which contained a secure telephone line which Churchill used to talk to President Roosevelt in Washington. This security was achieved with the use of a  SIGSALY code-scrambler located in the basement of Selfridges, Oxford Street. I really wish this still existed and could be visited by the public!

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There is a good section halfway through the route around the rooms, which gives a little more information about the way the rooms were used. There are some great objects on display as well as a map which shows how huge the bunker complex is – visited are only seeing a tiny portion of it!

There’s some great information about the ordinary people who worked in the war rooms and how they had to sleep in the sub-basement dormitory known as “the dock”. This small section is accompanied with some fantastic video interviews with former employees.

One interesting exhibit is a joke letter written by staff complaining of ‘acute shortages’ of ‘silk stockings, chocolates and cosmetics’.

In the light of the above, it is considered that the most expedient method of implementing the proposal in (c) would be the early dispatch of a mission to the U.S.A; a Force Commander has already been appointed, in anticipation of instructions.

Operation "Desperate" mock letter

Operation “Desperate” mock letter

At this point you enter the Churchill Museum, which is massive and includes lots of audiovisual displays, interactive elements, sounds and objects.  It has been designed so that you do not start at the beginning of Churchill’s life, but rather follow the course ofhte war and then return to Churchill’s birth and early life halfway through the museum.

While the museum is full of interesting exhibits and detailed information, I feel that it has suffered from the 2003 curators’ over-excitement about new technologies.  The museum is very dark, clearly to accentuate the panels and visual exhibits that light up. However this is quite disorientating once you’ve been in the museum for a few minutes, and some of the smaller more traditional exhibits such as letters and documents are difficult to read and so suffer.

The museum also lacks a clear route. I am sure some people prefer to wander and find their own route, but personally I like to look at everything when I visit a museum, preferably in order, so if I find myself reading about something ten years ahead or behind where I just was, I find it very distracting. Of course I am sure this is a personal thing.

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The Churchill Museum

The designers were clearly trying to weave sound and image in a very innovative way in the museum, and it certainly is innovative. However I sometimes felt the words ‘style over substance’ come to mind, as some of the design elements seemed a bit unnecessary. For example they incorporated two projections facing eachother with seats beneath, and the accompanying sound could only be heard when sitting directly below the opposite screen. While an interesting idea, it still means you have several voices in your ears at once and I feel it may have simply been more effective to just have two screens installed away from one another.

Another example of this overuse of sound technologies is the use of focused speakers in the ceiling, which are activated when you step on a sensor in the right place directly below the speaker. I am all for these methods of directing sound so it is not heard by everybody else, however it does somewhat remove the social element of visiting a museum. I found myself at several points listening to an interesting commentary near somebody else, before they suddenly moved away from the sensor, so the sound was turned off and I missed the end of the recording.

I found myself frequently wandering around confused, trying to read something, while hearing several conflicting voices coming from unexpected places. Perhaps I am just old-fashioned about these things and in a few years we will all be so used to these kinds of exhibitions. However I do think that curators should be careful not to overuse these techniques for the sake of it, at the expense of people’s understanding and comfort.

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The Churchill Museum Lifeline

One interesting element of the museum is the Lifeline, an interactive timeline which contains loads of detailed information about every year of Churchill’s life. This is really fascinating once yuo get the hang of it, however it demonstrated how fast technology moves. As it’s 2013 my first inclination was to touch the screen to move through the timeline, however instead you have to touch one of the small pads positioned around the table. It is not very sensitive and a little difficult to navigate, but a useful reference all the same.

Leaving aside these design-related criticisms, I must say the Churchill Museum is incredibly comprehensive and has some fascinating exhibits.  One of my favourites was a small interactive screen which showed remarks Churchill made over the course of his life. He was n incredibly witty man and these quotes made fantastic reading.

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Churchill’s Siren suit

The museum also has one of Churchill’s Siren suits on display, an all-in-one zip up suit which he wore on many occasions. From Churchill’s early life there are also some school reports, which show his lack of achievement in early life but his interest in history, and a punishment book, which is fascinating to read just to see the kinds of punishments delivered for the types of school-related transgressions.

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An Enigma Machine in the Churchill Museum

At this point during my visit, we had to hurry through the final part of the museum to see the rest of the war rooms before closing times. Again it would have been good to know how many rooms were left if you don’t have much time as you get stuck into the museum halfway through the route around the historical rooms.

These final rooms included the bedrooms of Churchill, his wife and other senior staff and the Chief of Staff Conference Room, which includes large maps with wartime doodlings of Hitler on them

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The Chief of Staff Conference Room

There is also a room which the BBC used to broadcast Churchill’s speeches, four of which he made from his bedroom, including his 11 September 1940 speech warning of Hitler’s plans against the UK.

The map room is also fascinating, with maps covering every wall and each one marked by millions of tiny pinpricks as they were marked and remarked by hand. It is amazing how plans were executed from these rooms with such basic organisational equipment.

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A map of Europe in the Map Room

The Churchill War Rooms is definitely worth and now it has been expanded so much, I would say it is worth a whole day’s visit, as you can certainly make it worth the £17 ticket price if you absorb all the information there. The museum is open daily from 9.30am to 6pm and is a short walk from Westminster or St James’s Park tube stations.

Everything Stops for Tea is a song written by Maurice Sigler with lyrics by Al Goodheart and American Al Hoffman, for the 1935 musical Come Out Of The Pantry. It is about tea being England’s favourite drink, however both the composer and the musical were American. Jack Buchanan performed the song for the musical and recorded another version which you can watch here.

Despite tea rationing during the Second World War, the English were addicted to the drink throughout the following decades. The Ministry of Food used the song in its 1940 exhibition and workers expected 15 minute tea breaks twice a day in all British industries in the 1950s, much to the annoyance of managers aiming to boost productivity.

Everything stops for tea – Jack Buchanan

Every nation in creation has its favourite drink
France is famous for its wine, it’s beer in Germany
Turkey has its coffee and they serve it blacker than ink
Russians go for vodka and England loves its tea

Oh, the factories may be roaring
With a boom-a-lacka, zoom-a-lacka, wee
But there isn’t any roar when the clock strikes four
Everything stops for tea

Oh, a lawyer in the courtroom
In the middle of an alimony plea
Has to stop and help ’em pour when the clock strikes four
Everything stops for tea

It’s a very good English custom
Though the weather be cold or hot
When you need a little pick-up, you’ll find a little tea cup
Will always hit the spot

You remember Cleopatra
Had a date to meet Mark Anthony at three
When he came an hour late she said “You’ll have to wait”
For everything stops for tea

Oh, they may be playing football
And the crowd is yelling “Kill the referee!”
But no matter what the score, when the clock strikes four
Everything stops for tea

Oh, the golfer may be golfing
And is just about to make a hole-in-three
But it always gets them sore when the clock yells “four!”
Everything stops for tea

It’s a very good English custom
And a stimulant for the brain
When you feel a little weary, a cup’ll make you cheery
And it’s cheaper than champagne

Now I know just why Franz Schubert
Didn’t finish his unfinished symphony
He might have written more but the clock struck four
And everything stops for tea

People have always suffered from bad breath, and there have always been suggested remedies for it, such as wine mouthwashes, charcoal toothpaste and chewing herbs. However at the turn of the century, advertisers seized on the common problem of bad breath to sell Listerine as the world’s first marketed mouthwash.

Listerine advertisement

Listerine advertisement

Listerine was formulated in 1879 by Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Wheat Lambert in St. Louis, Missouri as a surgical antiseptic. It was used for a variety of purposes: cleaning wounds, a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhea. In 1895 it began to be marketed as a dental medicine, which dentists could use for oral care. Then in 1914 it was marketed for the first time as a mouthwash.

To help sell Listerine as a mouthwash to a population who did not consider bad breath to be a bad enough problem to start medicating, the company seized an obscure medical term for bad breath ‘halitosis’, to make people think they had an actual condition.

No matter how charming you may be or how fond of you your friends are, you cannot expect them to put up with halitosis (unpleasant breath) forever. They may be nice to you – but it is an effort. Don’t fool yourself that you never have halitosis as do so many self-assured people who constantly offend this way.

Listerine bottle from the 1920s

Listerine bottle from the 1920s

Listerine’s advertising campaigns were aimed at young men and women, encouraging them to think that halitosis was what was ruining their love life and Listerine mouth wash could help them find a spouse. Ads claimed that ’68 hairdressers state that about every third woman, many of them from the wealthy class, is halitoxic.’

From the 1920s, this advertising formula was successful and Listerine’s revenues rose from $115,000 to more than $8 million. Listerine was sold in a glass bottle with no changes to the brand until the 1990s, when new bottles and flavours were introduced.

brummelOn this day in 1778, George Bryan Brummell (known as Beau Brummell) was born in Downing Street London. His father was private secretary to the prime minister, Lord North, and his family was very upwardly mobile, living at The Grove, in Donnington, Berkshire. In 1786 George was sent to Eton College. From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

He was also popular among fellow students for his wit, refinement, and a fascination with matters of dress and poise which defined his adult life and, as a schoolboy, earned him the sobriquet Buck Brummell.

Brummell went to Oxford for one term before inheriting  a fortune on his father’s death. He met George, prince of Wales at Whig society balls held at Eton and they became close. Brummell was offered a cornetcy in his personal regiment, the 10th hussars, and was promoted  to captain. He wasn’t much of a soldier and spent most of his time accompanying the prince to social events.

He became a leading member of London society, moving to 4 Chesterfield Street, Mayfair and holding many social occasions for the fashionable elite and aristocracy including the Prince. Oxford DNB:

The years between Brummell’s move to Chesterfield Street and his departure from England in 1816 witnessed the apogee of the fashion for dandyism of which Brummell was the leading exponent. The culture was characterized by its reaction against the excessive dress and manners of eighteenth-century men of fashion whose gentility had been defined by the magnificence and luxury of clothing and the fineness or delicacy of conversation. Dandyism, by contrast, drew on earlier English qualities—independence, self-command, capriciousness, and a hint of puritanism—to offer a rival style based on meticulous but simple tailoring and imperious, and therefore often impolite, displays of mannered etiquette.

Brummell’s concern for elegance and fashion led to a new way of dressing: a move away from breeches and stockings towards full-length trousers, shirts, starched cravats, waistcoats and long coats. He was known for his snobbishness, competitiveness, elegance, self-confidence and display.

Statue of beau Brummell on Jermyn Street in Westminster

Statue of beau Brummell on Jermyn Street in Westminster

His personality and celebrity caused him to eventually fall out with the Prince of Wales, but he simply moved to 13 Chapel Street in 1812 to establish a new social circle around the duke and duchess of York. Short of money, he turned to gambling, which gave him mixed success. In 1814 he was denounced by fellow members of White’s Club and left England for France on 16 May 1816. He spent the rest of his life in France, continuing his lifestyle despite further financial difficulties.

There have been many television and film adaptations of his life story, including a 1924 film, a 1954 film starring  Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor and a 2006 BBC TV movie starring James Purefoy.

The phrase ‘motley crew’ derives from the eighteenth century. ‘Motley’ is a medieval word meaning mixed in colour and often referred to clothing. The Motley was therefore the court jester due to his multi-coloured costume.

The meaning of the word then developed to mean ‘mixed bag’ or ‘various things’ so the phrase ‘motley crew’ began to be used to mean ‘a roughly-organized assembly of characters’. The first use is found in 1748 in George Anson’s Voyage Round the World:

With this motley crew (all of them except the European Spaniards extremely averse to the voyage) Pizarro set sail from Monte Video.

By the nineteenth century, ‘motley crew’ was an well-used cliché. It refers to a mixed group of unlikely heroes coming together to overcome adversity. It most often referred to pirates and is now a common archetype for sports and science fiction stories.

Yesterday in 1831, London Bridge was opened. This is a misleading statement because the bridge opened on that day was just one of several bridges referred to as London Bridge over the course of the history of London. Not only that but these London Bridges have often been confused with other more famous bridges, such as Tower Bridge. So here’s a run through of the history of London Bridge.

The first London Bridge was built by Henry II in order to memorialise famous Londoner Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been murdered 1170. Henry II built a chapel in the centre of the bridge which served as the starting point of the pilgrimage to Thomas Beckett’s shrine in Canterbury. The bridge was only finished in 1209 in the reign of King John.

“Old London Bridge in 1745” by Joseph Josiah Dodd

The bridge was eight metres wide and was supported by 19 arches. A drawbridge allowed river traffic down the river and defensive gatehouses were erected at each end of the bridge. The bridge was full of buildings from the beginning and the king sold plots on the bridge to try to cover the costs of the construction.

Over time, London Bridge became increasingly crowded and unsafe with fire being the most common hazard. By the sixteenth century the buildings on the bridge reached up to seven stories high and hung over the river. It must have been the most spectacular sight and if I could go back to see a building from London’s past it would be that bridge.

By the eighteenth century, common sense and health and safety took control. Between 1758 and 1762, all of the buildings on the bridge were demolished and then in 1799 a competition was held to design a new London Bridge. John Rennie won with a design for a bridge with five stone arches and a new bridge was built 30 metres upstream of the old bridge, which continued to be used during the construction of the new bridge. The new London Bridge was opened in 1831 and the old bridge was finally demolished.

New London Bridge in 1875

The new bridge was nearly twice as wide as the old bridge, which is amazing when you consider how much they managed to fit on the medieval bridge. By the turn of the century the bridge was the busiest in London and even had to be widened by 13 feet.

It was discovered that the bridge was sinking so need replacing and it was suggested that it should be sold. On 18 April 1968, Rennie’s bridge was sold to entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch of McCulloch Oil for US$2,460,000. There is a myth that he thought he was buying Tower Bridge, however this is untrue. The bridge was deconstructed stone by stone and rebuilt at Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

A brand new bridge was built in the same location as the Victorian bridge by architect Lord Holford and engineers Mott, Hay and Anderson.It began construction in 1967 and was opened by the Queen on 17 March 1973.

London Bridge today

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