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The Broderers Of St Paul’s

July 19, 2019
by the gentle author

Anita Ferrero

Like princesses from a fairy tale, the Broderers of St Paul’s sit high up in a tower at the great cathedral stitching magnificent creations in their secret garret and, recently, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I climbed up one hundred and forty-one steps to pay a visit upon these nimble-fingered needleworkers.

‘There are fourteen of us, we chat, we tell stories and we eat chocolate,’ explained Anita Ferrero by way of modest introduction, as I stood dazzled by the glittering robes and fine embroidery. ‘It’s very intense work because the threads are very bright,’ she added tentatively, lest I should think the chocolate comment revealed undue levity.

I was simply astonished by the windowless chamber filled with gleaming things. ‘There are thirteen tons of bells suspended above us,’ Anita continued with a smile, causing me to cast my eyes to the ceiling in wonder, ‘but it’s a lovely sound that doesn’t trouble us at all.’

Observing my gaze upon the magnificent textiles, Anita drew out a richly-embellished cope from Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. ‘This is cloth of gold’ she indicated, changing her voice to whisper, ‘it ceased production years ago.’

‘There are still wonderful haberdashers in Kuala Lumpur and Aleppo,’ she informed me as if it were a closely-guarded secret, ‘I found this place there that still sold gold thread. If someone’s going to Marrakesh, we give them a shopping list in case they stumble upon a traditional haberdashery.’ Next, Anita produced a sombre cope from Winston Churchill’s funeral, fashioned from an inky black brocade embroidered with silver trim, permitting my eye to accommodate to the subtler tones that can be outshone by tinsel.

In this lofty chamber high above the chaos of the city, an atmosphere of repose prevails in which these needlewomen pursue their exemplary work in a manner unchanged over millennia. I was in awe at their skill and their devotion to their art but Anita said, ‘As embroiderers, we are thankful to have a purpose for our embroidery because there’s only so many cushions you can do.’

I walked over to a quiet corner where Rachel Rice was stitching an intricate border in gold thread. ‘I learnt my skills from my mother and grandmother, and I always enjoyed sewing and dressmaking but that’s not fine embroidery like this,’ she admitted, revealing the satisfaction of one who has spent a life devoted to needlework. Yet she qualified her pride in her craft by admitting her humanity with a weary shrug, ‘Some of the work is extremely tedious and it’s never seen.’

‘We are all very expert but our eyesight is fading and a few of us are quite elderly,’ confided Anita, thinking out loud for the two of them as she picked up the story and exchanged a philosophical grin with Rachel. Nowhere in London have I visited a sanctum quite like the Broderers chamber or encountered such self-effacing creative talents.

‘We not so isolated up here,’ emphasised Anita, lifting the mood with renewed enthusiasm, ‘Most people who work in the Cathedral know we’re here. We often do favours for members of staff, taking up trouser hems etc – consequently, if we have a problem, we can call maintenance and don’t have to wait long.’

I was curious to learn of the Broderers’ current project, the restoration of a banner of St Barnabas. ‘He’s the one saint I’d like to meet because he’s called ‘The Son of Encouragement’ – he looks like a nice guy,’ confessed Anita fondly, laying an affectionate hand upon the satin, ‘We’re restoring the beard of St Barnabas at present and we’re getting Simon the good-looking Virger up here to photograph his beard.’

Rachel Rice - ‘I learnt my skills from my mother and grandmother’

Sophia Sladden

Margaret Gibberd

‘As embroiderers, we are thankful to have a purpose for our embroidery because there’s only so many cushions you can do.’

Judy Hardy

‘We chat, we tell stories and we eat chocolate..’

Virger Simon Brears is the model for the beard of St Barnabas

View from the Triforium

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

You may catch a glimpse of the Broderers for yourself by taking a Triforium Tour at St Paul’s Cathedral.

The Coal Holes Of Old London

July 18, 2019
by the gentle author

These hundred and fifty drawings of cast iron plate covers for coal chutes were sketched by a young medical student, Dr Shephard Taylor, while studying at King’s College Hospital in the Strand in 1863. “I determined to try to reproduce them on paper, and, although I had no particular artistic skill or genius, I found no great difficulty in making a fair sketch of the more simple devices,” he admitted proudly. Whether Dr Taylor was a purist who omitted those with their maker’s names because he preferred abstract design or whether he simply could not do lettering, we shall never know.

Dr Taylor was ninety years old before his cherished designs were published in 1929 and he christened them Opercula, which means a cover or a lid. I will give a prize to anyone that can send me a photograph of any of these opercula drawn by Dr Taylor still in its location today.

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The Manhole Covers of Spitalfields

Doris Halsall, Civil Servant & Despatch Rider

July 17, 2019
by the gentle author

Doris Halsall, Despatch Rider, 1944

I took the train over to Chigwell to visit Doris Halsall – still vital and independent in her ninety-ninth year – who recounted for me the story of her circuitous journey through the twentieth century and away from the East End. Blessed with keen intelligence and an adventurous nature, Doris embraced the possibilities for advancement that came her way – especially riding a motor bicycle – with enthusiasm and fearless determination, boldly constructing a life for herself that transcended her modest beginnings.

“I was born in 3 Venner Rd in Bow in 1920. My mother, Rosina & father, Alfred White lived in the downstairs with my sister, Rose and I. But later, when my mother’s sister died leaving a little boy of ten days old, Jack, my father said ‘Let us adopt him,’ even though my mother had eight or nine sisters.

Mrs Blewdon, who owned the house, lived upstairs and she came down every morning with her bucket and jug to empty them in the outside toilet and fill them again in the scullery. She stayed the whole day in her room and, each evening, she left us a note on the stairs, ‘I’m in for the night, Mrs White, Good Night.’ I always laughed because I used to love that little note on the stairs.

My father was in the army in the 1914-18 War and I’ve got a certificate to say that in 1916 he was unfit for service. There was no reason given but my mother always insisted that he was gassed and he was ill because of it, although his death certificate said ‘tuberculosis.’ When he came out of the army he did all sorts of jobs. I remember one day he was hoping it would snow, so he could go and do some snow shovelling. Eventually he joined the GPO and he would always bring newspapers to show me the events of the day. He died when I was ten years old in 1930. We were all there at the very last when he was dying. We didn’t think it was terrible, we just accepted it. In the family, there were others that died of tuberculosis.

My mother worked at home and we all helped her. I could cover you an umbrella now! She used to go up to the City and came back with the cloth and the umbrella frames, and we would fit the covers, the three of us – my mother, my sister & I – preventing, tying-in and tipping. Then next day, my mother would take the bundle back on the tram. It was hard for her schlepping up to the City everyday. I still have one of her tram tickets which I use as a bookmark. Later on, she used to knit angora berets and I sewed them up. She was always afraid we’d go into the workhouse, Bromley by Bow Workhouse was nearby.

After my father died, we were no more or less poor than we were when he was alive. My mother had a ten shillings a week pension, five shillings for my sister and three shillings for me – nothing for my cousin. We never saw ourselves as poor. We just accepted life. I was quite a happy child but my sister wasn’t, she was always unhappy and I don’t know why – I think it’s the way you are born. So I was never unhappy, but our circumstances were dreadfully poor. The coalman came round to our road but we couldn’t afford to have a sack of coal, it was half a crown for a hundredweight.

In Burdett Rd nearby, there was a little row of shops including a sweet shop with these different kinds of sweets in sections. All I ever wanted was to buy a quarter of pear drops for tuppence and I thought, ‘When I grow up, I’ll buy them.’ There were fruit stalls with oranges that came in fine crates made of wood which the stallholders would just throw down and the council would come and collect them, but we could go along and pick up the wood and take it home and put it on the fire. So why did you need to buy a hundredweight of coal for half a crown?

My sister & I played all the time in the street with my brother-come-cousin sat in the pushchair outside the house. We had all our friends on the street, our neighbour Mrs Franklin had nine children, and there was always entertainment on the street. The barrel organ would come along with these men dressed as women. We didn’t know anything abut transvestites, but they sang and danced and someone turned the barrel organ. The milk cart came along with a big churn and we would take a jug out. We’d buy jam at the little corner shop. We took a cup along and they’d weigh the cup and then they’d fill it with two penny worth of jam from a big jar.

When I was about twelve, I remember walking up to a shop in the City next to the Aldgate Pump to buy a postcard of Leonardo Da Vinci that I had learnt about from a very good art teacher at my school. The question was, ‘How to get tuppence?’ so there was no question of taking the tram or bus, I walked there. I can’t remember if I ever went to the West End but my mother used to take us to Southend for the day by train. I remember looking over the bridge from Bromley by Bow station at the workhouse. All the women used to sit along the wall in their blue and white dresses and, on the other side, sat all the men in their blue and white shirts, separated.

I remember Mosley’s blackshirts when they came down as far as Canal Bridge and I remember going down to see them. I was sixteen and I didn’t think too much about it. They were marching and they’d strayed over as far as Canal Rd. They’d been pushed back and after the Battle of Cable St and they were milling about trying to find a way home.

Opposite Stepney Green station, there was a Methodist Mission and there was this couple, Mr & Mrs Mackie and they took a group of girls under their wing. They took us on holiday for a week and we paid them ten shillings. They were very good to us. They ran a competition for ‘Recitation’ but I called it ‘Elocution.’ I went to a school where they always impressed on us that, if you come from the East End, it doesn’t mean you have to speak like someone from the East End. My cousins made fun of me because I spoke differently, mimicking me, but I didn’t care. I won the District and then the All-London Competition and I got invited stay to tea. That was a real treat. I still have my medal. My recitation began ‘No strong drink for this champion..’ and I had to sign the Temperance pledge. Conveniently, my memory is clouded about when I broke that.

I went to a very good school and I won a Junior County Scholarship with a grant of twelve pounds a year and, when I was fourteen, another grant of twenty-one pounds a year. It was very sad really. Most of the parents wanted their children to leave school and go to work. You were brought up to go and work when you were fourteen. My sister had left at fourteen and was already working and my mother wanted me to leave, but when I did she had to give me money for fares to London and for lunches so she wasn’t much better off.

I wanted to go into the Civil Service which most of my friends were doing but you couldn’t take the exam until you were eighteen. I worked in an office and went to night school, after I left school at sixteen, and finished my education that way. This lady in the office, who seemed ever so much older than me, said ‘Don’t stay here.’ Fortunately, I passed the Civil Service exam and went to work at the Ministry of Agriculture office in Leonard St in Shoreditch and it was all very nice until the War came along.

I was evacuated up to Lytham St Anne’s. We were put into seaside boarding houses and every morning we could smell our rations going past our doors! It was all girls, eight or nine of us, and Mrs Brooks did us well. We had a great time. We borrowed each other’s clothes and went out to the Tower Ballrooms. It was lovely. I was promoted in the Ministry of Agriculture and sent to Bournemouth. We were importing agricultural machinery from America and my job was to look after the shipments as they came in.

My mother stayed in the East End of London all through the war, even though she had a bomb drop next door and had to move out for a while, but she went to work in munitions and became quite well off. She had the Anderson shelter in the garden and she wasn’t a worrier. Yet all the bomb debris in the East End was horrible and cousin of mine was killed in her house with her two little children.

During the war, I wanted to go into the forces but I was considered too useful so I wasn’t allowed to be released from my job. I tried to get into the airforce, in the Meteorological section. I was attracted to the challenge but I wasn’t allowed to do this. Then an offer came along to be a Despatch Rider for the Home Office. My friend Claire & I signed up for that right away, and we went to Hendon Police for week and learnt to ride a motorbike. It was great.

At that time, we were quite sure there was going to be an invasion. In preparation for this, we had to drive around to Police Stations and hand in ‘despatches’ but we never knew what they were – probably a blank sheet. It was just practice and quite soon we knew exactly how to get to the various police stations.

Claire & I often got caught up in the American convoys with all the GIs sitting out on the tailboards while we were on our bikes. They would shout ‘Gee, they’re dames!’ and they wouldn’t let us overtake them – so we had a high time, until they turned left. I had various boyfriends. All the girls in the office had boyfriends or fiances and ever so many of them were killed. I had some boyfriends that weren’t English who went off and I never knew what happened to them.

When the invasion was expected, I was brought back from Bournemouth to London and I went back to live with my mother and she made a great fuss of me. My mother had married again, to Jim Mason, a crane driver in Ilford and they had moved out to Seven Kings. He was a nice man and I liked him ever so much. My mother was glad to leave the East End.

I was married in 1947. I met my husband, Harold Halsall at holiday camp on the East Coast. I had a travelling job then for the Ministry of Agriculture and I visited regional offices examining the accounts. Leaving London by train, I remember once I realised I had left some papers at the office, so I left my case on the platform and went back to the office and, when I returned, it was still there.

After we married we bought a house and lived in Ilford and had two little girls, Pauline & Julia. Rationing continued after the war but there were ways and means of getting hold of what you needed. When I was travelling I visited all the farming towns, so I had eggs and bacon and cheese and milk – and I stayed in hotels, there was no rationing in hotels. It was lovely. I was very fortunate. I have had such a great time. I don’t miss the East End because I wanted to have something better. It was hard, a tough existence and this was a much nicer life.”

Doris in the forties

Doris & her friend Claire, Despatch Riders in 1944

Doris’ mother Rosina and father Alfred, and his sister Emily, photographed at Southend in 1919

Doris with her mother, Rosina, in the twenties

Doris’ family in 1940 – Doris, her sister Rose and their mother Rosina in front.

Doris at the Ministry of Agriculture, Baker St Office, 21st May 1940

Youth Hostelling – Doris’ sister Rose, Doris, Doris’ friend Claire

Acrobatics by ‘Daredevil Doris,’ Corton, 1948

Doris in her new beach-robe, Howstrakes, June 1947

Doris with Harold Halsall on Oulton Broad, July 1947 – the year of their marriage

The first house which Doris and Harold bought on Kirkland Avenue in Ilford – note Doris’ motorbike

Doris, 1949

Doris Halsall, Chigwell

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Ted Vanner, Model Steamboat Genius

July 16, 2019
by the gentle author

Ted with SS Star

This is the earliest photograph of Ted Vanner, taken when when he was twenty-six years old in 1909, cradling one of his cherished creations with barely-concealed pride. Born in 1883 in Deptford as the second of seven children, Ted began his working life as a blacksmith and apparently gained no formal training as an engineer yet became a legendary innovator in model boat design. An early member of Victoria Model Steamboat Club, founded in 1904, Ted remained prominent in the club for more than sixty years until his death in 1955 when his wife Daisy continued to race his boats in her nineties until her death in 1973.

In later life, Ted Vanner recalled that he, along with other Victoria Model Steamboat Club members, took part in the first ever Model Engineer Regatta at Wembley in 1908. They all met at the Club Boat House in Victoria Park at 5:30am where Mr Blaney was busy cooking eggs and bacon over an oil stove for breakfast, and set out for Wembley in a horsedrawn van carrying boats and owners, ‘stopping at a few hurdles on the way.’

Working with the most rudimentary tools, it was his skill working with sheet metal and tinplate that set Ted Vanner apart from other competitors. According to Boat Club President Norman Phelps, Ted started with a ‘buck’ made from orange boxes and plasterer’s laths, which he would ‘plate’ with sections of cocoa tins. In order to create a joint that could be soldered, each plate overlapped the previous one, starting from the stern and working forward. This was Ted’s method to create elegantly stream-lined hulls that enabled him to produce model boats which were faster than his rivals. The refined shapes were achieved by ‘stroking’ the tin over a flat iron before the plates were soldered together with a large iron, heated either in the living room fire or on a gas ring.

In spite of these primitive construction techniques, Ted became an ambitious innovator. The early boats he built were steam driven tugs, such as he would have seen in the London Docks, but he quickly graduated to speed boats with sophisticated multi-cylinder engines. Ted acquired a reputation, competing at regattas all around the country, carrying his boats on the train and representing Victoria Model Steamboat Club in Paris in 1927, winning first prize with Bon-Ami, second prize with Leda III and third prize with Ledaette.

Today, Victoria Model Steamboat Club is one of only a small handful of surviving model boat clubs but you may still see their vessels on the Victoria Park Boating Lake each Sunday in Summer. Many of the boats in the collection are now over a century old and, if you are lucky, you may even get to see one of Ted Vanner’s creations in action. Seven of his elegant craft remain in working order, carrying his reputation into the future. An inspirational creator, making so much out of so little with such astonishing ingenuity, Ted Vanner is an unsung hero and legend in the civilised world of model boat clubs.

Victoria Model Steamboat Club, 1909

Outside the Club House in Victoria Park

Boats inside the Club House

Ted releases Danube III

Ted is second from left

Ted releases Leda III

Ted stands on the right in this photo in Paris in 1927

Ted is fourth from the right in this line up at St Albans

On the Round Pond Kensington, 1954

Ted wins a trophy for Victoria Park Steamboat Club at Forest Gate Regatta, May 10th 1954

Presenting the prizes at the Victoria Park Model Steamboat Regatta, 1955

At this Model Boat club dinner, Ted & Daisy Vanner sit in the middle of the back row

Daisy Vanner in the fifties

Daisy and Ted on the left

In her nineties, Daisy Vanner continued to compete in regattas with Ted’s boats after his death

Leda III and All Alone, two of seven of Ted’s boats still in working order today

With thanks to Tim Westcott for supplying the photographs accompanying this feature

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My Facade Safaris

July 15, 2019
by the gentle author

I have been scurrying all over London to photograph examples of facadism suggested by readers for inclusion in my forthcoming book. I call these expeditions ‘facade safaris’ and, as you can see from my collection of trophies below, I shot some prime specimens.

THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM combines a gallery of the most notorious facades and a humorous analysis of facadism - the unfortunate practice of destroying everything apart from the front wall and constructing a new building behind it – revealing why this is happening and what it means.

I am still seeking a couple more investors for my book, so if you would like to help please write to me at spitalfieldslife@gmail.com . You can also support the book by preordering and you will receive a signed copy when it is published in October.

Click here to preorder your copy

Please suggest more London facades I should include.

Corner of Berwick St & Broadwick St, Soho

Whenever you see an old facade with a new structure behind it, this tells you that a building of distinction once stood there that could not simply be demolished and the compromise which arose was to keep the front wall. None of these facaded buildings should have been destroyed, but it happens because the economic forces driving redevelopment are greater than the legislation to protect what exists already. The recent rise in façadism is a barometer of how far the power balance has shifted away from conservation towards redevelopment. The result has been the loss of too many important and attractive old buildings that once enhanced our city and their replacement with generic monoliths.

No-one believes the original building still exists because the front wall still stands. There are a few examples where an attempt has been made to hide the join but, in my experience, this is a fiction that developers do not strive to maintain. Mostly, retaining the facade is an unwelcome condition of planning permission when their preference would have been complete demolition. Abnegating responsibility, the developers either complain that they were forced to keep the front wall or occasionally boast that they retained the period features, while the local community grieves that a beloved building and landmark has been destroyed. Nobody really wins and the uneasy physical form of the buildings manifests the tensions which arise in such compromises.

The front wall alone can never be a sufficient replacement for the loss of a building. Even the assumption that it could be raises questionable notions about how we experience the urban landscape. Cynically, it implies we perceive the world as mere surface and it does not matter if what is behind changes, as long as the superficial appearance is preserved. Yet a facade becomes a mask when it conceals a building’s change of use – from a philanthropic institution into luxury flats or from a public building into a corporate headquarters – distracting our attention from the reality of the transformation.

Unsurprisingly, architects dislike the requirement of incorporating an existing facade into a new building, which may have been conceived in the hope of fulfilling their own design without such compromise. Yet too often financial subservience overrides self-respect in these cases. No wonder the treatment of the facade is often perfunctory and the resentment is visible. These circumstances explain the strange discontinuities in this hybrid architecture where sometimes a gap is inserted between the facade and the building, and the architectural styles of the facade and the new building are often at odds with each other. It is disappointing when architects pay so little attention to the architectural whole and the rest of us have to live with these grotesque monsters that confront us only with what we have lost.

This curious phenomena first came to my attention when I was shown a facaded nineteenth century office building near Smithfield in the nineties. Only the exterior shell had been retained. The developer had increased capacity by replacing high-ceilinged Victorian offices with low-ceilinged modern workspaces. Consequently, the new interior structure did not coincide with the exterior walls, which meant that floors bisected windows.

At the time, it was merely an isolated curiosity. I observed this early indication of a world out of joint with the innocence of an unwitting protagonist in a science fiction drama who ignores the first sign of a warp in reality that will grow to engulf the universe.

Union Hall, Union Street, Borough, opened as Surrey Magistrates Court in 1782, facaded for offices in 2005

Bayswater Rd

Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital in Hackney, established 1867, closed in 1996 and facaded for luxury flats in 2014

Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society in Upper Tooting Rd built in 1923

Archway Rd, Highgate

Staycity Aparthotel, Blackheath Rd, Deptford

UCL student housing in Caledonian Rd, winner of the Carbuncle Cup 2013

Replica of the facade of Gaumont Cinema 1914 built in 2018 in Pitfield St, Hoxton

Ludgate Hill

Sainsbury’s, Townmead Rd, Fulham

The Westminster Arms, Praed St, Paddington, since 1869, facaded in 1989 by the Metropole Hotel.

The exterior cover of the book…

…which opens to reveal the title.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER A COPY OF THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM