Archive for September, 2010

Electrical Repairs

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Sometimes my postbag has a delightful Yin and Yang feel to it. Jill asks:

“I’m looking for someone local who does repairs on DVD players etc – any suggestions/recommendations please?”

The next day, long-term Phantomite Mike sends me this:

Hi GP – no need to reply….just a recommendation for an excellent electrician we have used! Punctual, friendly, good value and efficient!

I love having to do no work at all…

Lost Greenwich (4) John Townsend

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

If there’s one thing I love, it’s receiving, months after I wrote about a subject, something which sheds a new light on what we were discussing.

A few days ago, I got an email from Bonnie Buxton in Canada, who is the great, great granddaughter of the actor-MP, John Townsend, one of Greenwich’s most colourful Victorians. Townsend, if you recall, started out as an auctioneer, became an MP, stood up for docker’s rights, then ran away to the theatre. Bonnie tells me her grandmother, one Gertrude Townsend, who was born in 1881, was sent away to Hamilton, Ontario, to be Townsend’s housekeeper - at the age of eight.

Townsend sounds like one of those entertainingly eccentric old people that populate children’s books, who used to stride around town in a big cloak, ‘with a flowing beard and hair.’ Gertrude hadn’t gone to school, of course, but her grandfather constantly quoted Shakespeare at her (I’m sure he had one of those resonant ‘actor’ voices…) which ‘gave her a lifelong love for the English Language.’ 
When Bonnie herself was eight years old (clearly a magical age in the Townsend family) she discovered a trunk in her grandmother’s basement (see what I mean about this being straight out of a children’s novel?) full of old photos of people in old-fashioned clothes striking dramatic postures.  Bonnie’s  grandmother told her the story of her grandfather and said she could have the photographs when she grew up. 

At this point I got very excited, but sadly, this is where the kiddie-story ends. She says “Unfortunately, Granny developed dementia and, when I was away at university, her house was sold and some cousins, far less appreciative than I was, pitched out the old trunk and its contents” - a collection of photos from Victorian theatrical history, no doubt including Greenwich images.

If a Phantom could weep, I’m sure it’s nothing to what Bonnie feels about her relations’ attitude to history. But she did send me an extract from Thomas Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, published by Chatto and Windus in 1881, which quotes one C.W. Montague, speaking in 1860.

I repeat it in full, because it goes so well with Townsend’s story, which I wrote about before here (sorry – the links never seem to come out very clearly). If you find yourself curious about Ginnett’s terrible Circus, find them here - I assume they’re a bit better these days…

“In the following winter, I joined Ginnett’s circus at Greenwich, and found the business in a wretched condition. The principal reason for this state of things was, that the circus had only a tin roof and wooden boarding around, and the weather being very severe, the place could not be kept warm. I was at my wits’ ends to improve the receipts when, being one day in a barber’s shop, getting shaved, the barber remarked, “There goes poor Townsend.”

“On inquiring I found that the gentleman referred to had been M.P. for Greenwich, but in consequence of great pecuniary difficulties had had to resign. My informant told me that he was a most excellent actor, having seen him, on more than one occasion, perform Richard III with great success; and what was more, he was an immense favorite in Greenwich and Deptford, he having been the means, when in the House of Commons, of getting the dockyard labourers’ wages considerably advanced.

“It immediately struck me that, if I could get the ex-M.P. to perform in our circus, it would be a great draw. With this object in my mind, I waited on Mr. Townsend the next morning, and explained to him my views. ‘Heaven knows,’ he said in reply, ‘I want money bad enough, but to do this in Greenwich would be impossible.’ I did not give it up, however, but pressed him on several occasions, until at last he consented to appear as Richard III for a fortnight, on sharing terms.

“The next difficulty was as to who should sustain the other characters in the play, there being no one in the company, except Mr. Ginnett and myself, capable of taking a part. We got over the difficulty by cutting the piece down, and Mr. Ginnett and myself doubling for Richmond, Catesby, Norfolk, Ratcliffe, Stanley, and the Ghosts. The business, notwithstanding
these drawbacks, turned out a great success; so much so, that Mr. Townsend insisted on treating the whole of the company to supper. Shortly afterwards, he went to America.”

Don’t you just wish you’d been there? About a hundred years before the Reduced Shakespeare Company did that cutting-down thing, there were two guys doing Richard III in front of a load of dockers with one chap as the king; and the other playing everyone else. National Theatre of Brent eat your heart out.

Thanks, Bonnie, for your memories. The pictures may be gone, but the images remain quite clear in my head…

The Phantom Has Very Little Luck Trying To Get Pictures Of The Pirates of the Caribbean

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Folks, I have been amassing a collection of photos of security guys’ palms as they make it damn hard to take pictures on public footpaths of the Old Royal Naval College, which just happens to have some filming going on at the moment. Unlike Gulliver’s Travels, there’s a massive fence and you get moved on pronto if you stop too long (i.e. a nanosecond) on the public footpath outside.

The best pics I’ve seen so far were recommended on Twitter by @SE10represent

In the meanwhile I took John GS’s advice and checked out John Adam’s post-prod effects (not Pirates but v. similar) – absolutely extraordinary, and, as Scared of Chives points out, makes you wonder why they bother going to the ORNC at all…

Greenwich Farmers’ Market

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Thank you to everyone who’s sent this leaflet through.

The last time a farmers’ market was started in East Greenwich Pleasaunce, it lasted one whole morning before being sent away with its tail between its legs for not asking for permission first.

Since I can’t believe that anyone would make the same mistake twice, I’m guessing that this is fully above board and that it really will happen once a month, and I am delighted.

The last one had really good stalls,mostly different from the Blackheath version, so there was virtually no clash and I could happily go to both. I was particularly taken with the biscuits in the Pleasaunce if I recall.

So – if it’s anything like it was before, this will be an excellent thing – go along, buy some fresh fare then have a nice cup of tea and a sit down in the Pleasaunce caff. Ahhhh…

Sands Cinema Club

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Okay, so this one definitely counts as ‘not quite Greenwich’ but hey – it’s a secret little gem that even people who live in Rotherhithe don’t tend to know about. And given that it’s so close to Canada Water and Rotherhithe stations, and that it’s  on the 188 bus route, there’s really no excuse not to check it out if you are of the obscure-cinema persuasion…

The Sands are the cutest film studios in the world. Housed in a fabulous old warehouse full of low timber beams and quirky corners, everything is done with love. If anyone remembers Polka Children’s Theatre in the late 1980s before its ‘makeover’, it reminds me of that. It has teeny-tiny sound stages good for intimate scenes. The producers of films like The Tales of Beatrix Potter, Pride & Prejudice, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Young Victoria and Bright Star have all beaten a path to these exquisite facilities, not least for their other USP, their extraordinary costumes.

Most theatrical costumes are made up of junk when you look at them closely – bits of silver spray-painted spaghetti or ring-pulls off coke cans have been ‘jewels’ on royal gowns, rich ‘embroidery’ on Regency waistcoats painted on with an airbrush.

None of that nonsense at the Sands. Here, the costumes are as gorgeous close up as they are from a distance. You can usually catch a sneaky of whatever’s being created by their specialist embroiderer, or even see them at work if you visit yet another of their lovely facilities, the extensive Rotherhithe Picture and Research Library, which is on the ground floor, and which is free to visit on weekdays between 10.00am and 4.00pm. The collection covers all sorts of things from Victorian boots to ancient bridges. There’s an excellent selection of local history archives.

But onto the subject of today’s post. The Sands Cinema Club, run by Olivier Stockman, and clearly his baby. You join a mailing list and then every week, Olivier tells you which film he’ll be showing then next Tuesday night.

Now these films are Obscure (note the use of the upper case here.) The films Stockman chooses are usually themed – a series of world films from 1927, for example, or, starting next week, Italian movies from 1970. It’s often the only chance you’ll get to see these films. Hell – it’s usually the only time I’ve even heard of them.

If you decide to go to a screening, you drop Olivier an email (you really do have to do this – he has 900 people on the list and the place seats 30 at most ) and then just turn up.

When you get there, you often get offered a mug of tea in the cheerfully gingham kitchen before  being ushered upstairs to the screening room.

Now, I’m sure you have an image of a screening room in your mind. Some chrome and plush contemporary ‘space’ just off Wardour Street where meedja types discuss the latest rushes of films that, inexplicably green-lit, will never see the darkness of an actual release short of the bargain bin in Blockbuster. You need to lose that image.

Think more of your Auntie Joan’s living room. A fabulous, low-lit, cosy venue, stuffed full with old sofas, mis-matched armchairs and a rather splendid 1950s cabinet. I have an image of a chintz table lamp in my mind, but that may just be fantasy.

Snuggle down into your own personal sofa, and listen to Olivier introduce the film. This is a man with passion in his heart and he has personally chosen these movies because he wants to see them – he’s just invited a few friends round to share them with him – and he’s keen to tell you exactly why he’s picked them.

After the film Olivier also likes to chat about what you’ve just seen, so don’t expect a quick get away – but then that’s all part of the Sands cinema experience. It’s a rounded evening, and Stockman’s enthusiastic intros and outros are part of the enjoyment.

The best part about all of this is that it’s free. Of course it would be churlish not to leave a little something in the film cannister outside afterwards as a contribution towards the hire of the next cinematic delight. People generally leave, as far as I can tell, between two or three quid and a tenner.

This is what being a Londoner is all about. Stuff like this exists all over and we just don’t know about it. The joy of living here is the discovery of gems like the Sands Cinema Club.

Weather Vanes 4 – St Alfege’s Church

Monday, September 27th, 2010

Of course St Alfege’s Church is, like most of Greenwich, all under wraps at the moment while it receives a spruce up, but Stephen sent me a pic of the weather vane so we’re ready to enjoy it when all is revealed.

I’ve been trying to work out how old it is, and I’m guessing it dates back to the restoration after the war. In this austere little pamphlet from 1951, though,

…the church has not yet been rebuilt – the booklet is all about the history of the church up to the war, and describes what will be done with the money from the War Damage Commission, which considered the church to be so important it gave £8,000 towards rebuilding – £5,000 of which was for the organ. I’m guessing the booklet was produced as an extra incentive for people to donate the extra £9,000 still needed. Plus ça change…

If you look at the drawing on the front, there is an encouragingly similar blob where the weather vane should be -

So I’m guessing that if the weather vane dates from the restoration, it’s a fairly faithful rendition.

I can find precious little about the vane itself, though I did find a little story Richardson tells where a bit of St Alfege’s church spire lodged itself in one of the houses in Roan street after being hit by lightning on May 6th, 1813, and stayed there for many years – don’t bother looking for it now, btw, the house is long-gone…

As a weather vane it looks fairly standard to me – nice ‘direction arrows’ in what – bronze? No images of Vikings throwing bones at archbishops, but then I guess it’s the better for that…

If anyone knows any more about the St Alfege weather vane, I’d love to know it. Meanwhile, I leave you with the tantalising prospect of Weather vanes 5 (do try to contain your excitement…)  which has a very odd story indeed…

Postscript: I have been contacted by Andrew Blundy, the church warden of St Alfeges who has some very interesting news:

“We believe that the copper work of the weathervane is original 18th century work, with 1950 repairs (as part of the post-war restoration) and now the 2010 repairs (having been recently completed in accordance with the attached report).  We found a date scratched into the lead to the cap stone of 1954.  The rod is steel so probably dates from 1954. The upper two stones of the obelisk were replaced at the same time.”

The vane is made from copper repousé on an iron spindle and, according to the report made by the company doing the repairs, in pretty poor shape. They have basically knocked all the dents out, re-soldered where needed, and then re-gilded it, which is why it’s looking so good just now . The church tower should be revealed in about six weeks time, when I’m hoping to be able to tell you a bit more about the work. Looking forward to it…

Robert Hooke’s Summer House

Friday, September 24th, 2010

I’ve been meaning to talk about the Grange for a very long time. You may not be as familiar with the house itself as you are with its eastern outbuilding – the cute little gazebo seemingly perched on the top of its outer wall, hanging out over Crooms Hill. I’ll come to the summer house in a moment, but first we should at least peek (and frankly that’s all we’ll be able to do) at the building.

It’s very old, though it’s been remodelled so many times it’s hard to see where the age comes in. In its first incarnation, it was probably the Paternoster Croft for the Abbey of Ghent, though there’s precious little if anything left of that particular construction (and for once, I know this first hand - in one of those weird quirks of life I did actually once look round the building, from cellar to loft. Things have moved on and, sadly, I don’t think that will ever happen again.)

When it moved into private hands the Grange became home to a splendid collection of individuals – not least one of Greenwich’s very first evil developers, Sir Lancelot Lake. Queen Elizabeth’s chief joiner had lived there earlier, presumably leading an indolent life since the Queen was much happier staying in other people’s homes than forking out the cash to build her own. It was also home to the Lanier family (see Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of Crooms Hill but I promise to get on to the rest of the family some day, they really warrant their own post). Some even reckon Sir William Boreman lived there while he was remodelling Greenwich Park, but if he did he must have been a guest, given the dates.

But the man who most people associate with the Grange is the “plain, ordinary, silly man” that Sam Pepys claimed kept “the poorest mean dirty table in a dirty house that ever I did see any sheriff of London”, Sir William Hooker.* I have no idea whether Hooker warranted Pepys’s poor opinion of him, but blimey – if he was considered dirty in those days he must have really honked, given the smell of everything else…

Hooker was Lord Mayor of London, but when the plague really hit hard in 1665, he did what so many city dwellers did, move out to the countryside. I don’t know how much of the Grange he rebuilt, but it was a grand old affair by the time he finished with it. He, his wife, son and three daughters had three coach houses and kept stables for eight horses.

In 1672, he commissioned Young Turk Robert Hooke to build him a little conceit in the garden, right on the edge so that he could get a good view of the Park.

It’s a cute little building, in a sort of oriental-ish style, but with those classic Restoration touches that you can see in the Observatory which was being built at more or less the same time.

Here are some better views, taken by Stephen:

I just adore it. If you crane your neck you can just see the fabulous moulded plaster ceiling, restored, like the rest of the gazebo exactly three hundred years later in 1972.

It utterly baffles me that the current owners seem to be using it as a glorified shed, rather than holding dainty little champagne soirees, midnight feasts or fabulous sugar banquet courses in there, which is what I would be doing.  Hey ho – each to his own, I guess.

There’s something else that puzzles me. The coat of arms above the window. I’m assuming it’s original, and, if it is, that it’s Hooker’s family crest, but I’ve been unable to find any mention of it at all anywhere. I am sure some local historian can help me out there.

For so many reasons – not least because only forty years separates them, and because they’re both frivolous little pleasure buildings built by men more famous for other things, but who knew which side their bread was buttered when it came to the toffs, I’ve decided to twin it with Inigo Jones’s Loo in Charlton.

Sir William Hooker, for all his mean dirtiness, wasn’t short of a few bob, and when he died in 1697 he was placed in the family vault under old St Alfege’s Church, and a splendid memorial in white marble showing him in his Alderman’s kit erected in the South Aisle. Sadly the Luftwaffe  disposed of that particular piece of Greenwich history in WWII but a little memorial to Greenwich’s very own Mean, Dirty, Ordinary Man still exists in the glorious Greenwich Millennium Embroideries where Hooker can be spotted standing next to a plague doctor, rescuing a sick child.

*Not to be confused with the 18th /19th Century botanist Sir William Hooker who’s just been given a blue plaque in Kew

Watch This Space

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Every time I toddle over to Sainsburys underneath the A102M flyover, I am struck by this vast empty space. I find myself thinking surely there must be a use for it. There’s never anything there, bar the odd shopping trolley, clearly making the long, final journey to Shopping Cart Valhalla and some dodgy fried chicken paraphernalia (it struck me the other day – when did the concept of little wooden chip forks come in? I remember thinking they were ‘a bit posh’ when I was a kid…)

There aren’t even any skateboarders – I mean I know that it’s not a big fashion any more, but if you go up to the South Bank there are still dozens of young people in baggy outfits whizzing around with planks on wheels – I’d have expected to see one or two. But then I guess it’s not that exciting as a skatepark, being flat.

I wrack my brains trying to work out what could be done with this space – I mean, I know there’s the obvious ‘fumes’ issue, but cars are much cleaner these days than they’ve ever been.

I confess I voted for the mural off the old district hospital to be installed there as something to look at at least (it ended up at creepy old Glenister Green in the end and, I admit actually works quite well there, adding ghostly figures to the sinister, low-lit gloom at night) but maybe Art is what’s needed under the motorway. I suppose its being totally empty does at least mean that there are no nasty surprises for anyone walking through there late at night. But there must be something that could go on there from time to time?

Step Ahead of Plans Afoot

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Richard’s alerted me to a handy little tool called Planning Alerts, which does exactly what you might expect it to – lets you know about all the planning applications that arrive on the Council’s doormat. Neither of us is sure if it will be useful yet – so far all I’ve had is a mountain of requests to lop branches off trees in back gardens around Westcombe Park but hey – might be worth persevering with just for the juicy stuff someone might try to sneak through without anyone noticing…

Diamond Cottage

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Warning: Absolutely No Research Was Done For This Post

Stuart asks:

I am trying to trace whether a house which was called ‘The Cottage’ existed on Diamond Terrace around 1910-1930, which Parish it was in and who lived there. Does it still exist and are there any photographs?

The Phantom replies:

This is a typical example of The Phantom treading ground as shaky as that upon which Diamond Terrace itself stands.

The short answer is that I don’t know – but I’m willing to be that the above photo is of Diamond Cottage, on the southern bend of the cute little path that makes up Diamond Terrace. I took the picture some months ago, having been utterly charmed by the place and, in the spirit of not actually checking any of my facts today, haven’t been up since the crack of dawn to trudge over and spy in the windows just to make sure. That’s what visits to the Heritage Centre are for.

According to Darryl Spurgeon (I did make it the two steps across the room to the Phantom Bookshelf – I’m not that lazy) it’s from 1844, and though I’m not going to swear to it, I’ll make an educated guess and suggest that it’s in the parish of St Alfeges(BTW if anyone from St Alfeges is reading this, I am also beginning to get questions about Advent Windows…)

I don’t know who would have lived there, though I can invent some ex residents for you if you like. If you prefer real people, the parish records of St Alfeges are now held at the Metropolitan Archives, specifically in the A2A Database. I confess a (very) quick search didn’t dredge anything up, but, as I warned you at the top of this post, today’s is one hell of a quick post…

I am sure there are local history fans or residents of Diamond Terrace (even the cottage itself – hell – if I lived in a place like that I’d have researched its history to the last scullery maid) who can help further – so now I’m sending this out into the ether and looking forward to replies…