Archive for September, 2011

Goorkas Slaughtering the French Artillery at Greenwich Observatory

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Mon dieu! Here’s a terrifying incident from recent history – if you’re in some alternate universe, and a fan of proto-SF writer William le Queux, that is.

Le Queux was a prolific Victorian fantasy/mystery/thriller writer, who seems to have been rather prescient given that he wrote The Great War in England in 1897 in 1894.

Well, okay – he got pretty much everything wrong, though at least in an almost exact-opposite sort of way- but he did predate the concept of European war by exactly 20 years. His particular USP was that the Germans were going to invade, and he returned to the theme again and again. And his lurid novels – of which he wrote 150 were good sellers, not least because he was into the new-fangled idea of publicity stunts. For his terrify-’em-in-the-Home-Counties thriller, The Invasion of 1910, serialised in the Daily Mail (plus ça change…) Lord Northcliffe coughed up the cash for Le Queux to hire a bunch of actors, dress them in German army uniform and march them up and down Regent Street.

He was what we now call an early adopter. He was mad about flying, broadcast his own wireless music programme before most people even had crystal sets and would have helped John Logie Baird with his exciting new ‘television’ if he hadn’t already tied up his cash elsewhere.

Invasion Literature, not a genre that flies off the shelves these days, started with the unpromisingly-titled Battle of Dorking in 1871 by George Tomkyns Chesney, an army officer who wrote it as much to tell the government not to make cuts in the armed forces as to entertain.

The Great War in England of 1897 defeated me, I have to say. I was very excited when Nick told me about it, but I guess there’s a reason why classics are classics and it’s not just that they’re old. I would hazard that this is not a classic. I tried to read it, I really did, but I ended up having to pinch the plot off Wikipedia. There was just too much ‘and then this happened…’ for me.

So – basically, Britain is invaded by an alliance of France and Russia but the plucky little Englishmen fight back bravely. Le Queux hadn’t got quite into his stride yet, and Germany is actually the good guys in this book. They wade into help, save the day and then the New best Friends go a-plundering across Europe. Germany gets most of France; Britain gets Algeria and Russian Central Asia.

Wikipedia (yeah, I delved deep for this post…) tells me that The Great War in England in 1897 is pretty much the exact opposite of what happened 20 years later when the world really was at war.  Unfortunately for Le Queux, by that point he’d switched his allegiances and decided that Germany wore the black hat after all. Consequently, when war broke out, he became paranoid that German assassins were after him  and plagued his local police force, and then the Met to give him him special protection. Unsurprisingly they didn’t take his request very seriously, and, given that he lived until 1927, I guess they were right. But perhaps it will explain why, in his not-very-revered autobiography, Things I Know About Kings, Celebrities and Crooks, he claims to have seen a document by Rasputin saying Jack the Ripper was a Russian doctor who  dunnit to confuse and ridicule Scotland Yard…

There is a 2007 book about Le Queux,  William Le-Queux – Master of Mystery – which I am sorely tempted to try, given his bizarre life – anyone read it?

In the meanwhile I must give The Great War in England in 1897 another go, if only to work out how the hell it is supposed to have influenced H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. Now – if they’d said Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, I’d have bought that…

Rotunda Still In Peril

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

After last week’s little frisson of excitement that in the reworking of the army barracks at Woolwich for the soon-to-be-arriving King’s Troop Royal Artillery the beautiful but sadly falling -apart Georgian Rotunda would be renovated and loved again I’m afraid that I have some rather sad news for you.

After our discussion last week, Paul actually wrote to the architects, Scott Brownrigg, to see whether this extraordinary Georgian confection was included in their designs or just a pretty backdrop for them (well done Paul – thanks…). He pointed out that it was an asset that would make everything not only look better, but was desirable to keep in at least reasonable shape.

He received a reply from them a day or so ago:

“Dear Sir
Thanks for your email, I am afraid that your assumption is correct the Rotunda is not part of the King’s troop relocation scheme.

All we know is that the building is still under military ownership.”

Well, at least we know where it all stands. I know that money is tight just now, but this is a sublime, unique building by a famous architect. Surely it deserves a better fate than this?

I still feel that it would make a good events venue that, once it was brought back to a reasonable state, would pay for itself in hire fees, much as the Cutty Sark is hoping to do next year.

Its one crime is that it’s not in a posh area. If this was Godalming or Henley, the Rotunda would never have suffered a fate like this. It would have been lovingly restored, dressed in white ribbons and pink roses every weekend for fluffy brides and squiffy bridesmaides, been the setting for several international smash-hit Richard Curtis rom-coms and occasionally been the backdrop for well-heeled amateur theatrical productions of Shakespeare’s comedies. As it is, it’s gated off, surrounded by the detritus of military hardware and falling to bits.

There is an unpalatable but radical idea that I don’t actually condone but this morning I feel like paying devil’s advocate. Hang on, I’m going to don my tin helmet and dig myself a trench…

The Rotunda wasn’t always here. It started out in King George’s back garden in the centre of town.

I would hate to see it moved from its present position, but I would hate more to see it crumble and collapse completely. Would moving it to save it be such a terrible idea?

Right.  I’m just going to take cover before the firing begins.

Westfield Shopping Metropolis

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Dunno what made me do it, really. I guess nosiness, and the vague fear that Greenwich might have something to worry about from a vast mall ten minutes down the tube. And what the hell made me choose Saturday to explore Stratford’s new Westfield shopping centre beggars belief. I can only put it down to heatstroke.

It’s easy to get to, I’ll give it that. I had had some idea that it would be a trudge from the station, but one of the exits from Stratford tube leads straight into this melee of retail opportunity and human mass. I have never seen quite so many people milling through a mall, and it’s not even finished yet (though of course the empty stores have been done out very artistically so they don’t look too boarded up.)

There were queues outside some of the shops that are open, and everywhere else it seemed that the entire population of Britain had decided to wander up and down faceless aisles trying to find the way out.

I guess the best way to describe it is that it’s like Bluewater without the charm (and yes I do know what I’m saying here…) and, when the crowds have died down I suppose that it will be an alternative to Oxford St for the big chains but I can’t see that I’ll be returning soon.

The only place I actively liked was Wahaca, latest in a superior chain of Mexican restaurants. There aren’t, as far as I can see, any indie eateries (or indie-anything) in Westfield, but as chains go, this was very good indeed. My friend and I shared several plates from their street-food selection and enjoyed everything we were served.

Back to the scrum, and I was beginning to get bit freaked out by it all; a bit panicky in the crowds. In the end I just couldn’t face going in most of the shops, merely nipping to M&S to change a birthday shirt that was too small and John Lewis to see the real reason why I came. This:

(as usual, click on the image to make it bigger)

On the top floor of John Lewis, if you can make your way through the tourist tat in the Official Olympic Store, there’s a viewing room, complete with seats and an info board. It’s really quite impressive, and, I think in retrospect, was worth the journey just to see history in action. You can also  see it from the end of one of Westfield’s streets, but this is the best view.

So – is it a threat to Greenwich? Absolutely no way – this is for a different kind of shopping – mass-market consumer basics type stuff that has a place – we all shop in chains from time to time – but is the exact opposite of the kind of one-off, inventive quirkiness that Greenwich offers.

I’d call it a serious threat to Stratford’s old shopping centre and market, by the theatre, but still hold out hope in that with all those thousands and thousands of people I saw on Saturday I didn’t see thousands and thousands of carrier bags. Stratford is still a town that needs shops for ‘real’ people who don’t do their weekly food shop at M&S and who still need to buy a plastic bucket or a clothes airer…

What we should see it as, however, is a warning – of what Greenwich could turn into if we were ever stupid enough to throw away our Unique Selling Point and buy into the chain-store-clonery that has blighted most of Britain’s towns. I met a woman at an event last night who, although she lives in Pimlico, went into raptures about shopping in Greenwich – something she does on a regular basis – because she can get really unusual stuff she couldn’t hope to find elsewhere.

We still have a real difference. Here’s to keeping it that way.

St Alfege Churchyard – the early years.

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

After the gloom of yesterday’s news, I thought I’d continue the theme of St Alfege’s Churchyard by looking at the early years of what is now St Alfege’s Park (minus some of its precious artefacts after last week’s disgrace…)

Of course next year, the Church commemortes 1000 years since Greenwich’s very own saint’s bizarre martyrdom and there’s been a church on the site for almost as long, but the bit of churchyard we’re talking about is much younger (though still nearly three hundred years old.)

The issue, as ever, was space. It didn’t take long for the original yard – the bit immediately surrounding the church itself – and the crypt under the church to get full of pious Greenwichians and by 1716 the earth was getting embarrassingly full of dead bodies.

The sum of £150 was scraped together to buy half an acre of land from a Mr Moore. Surely that should be easily enough for years and years, thought the parishioners.

But Greenwich was booming and medicine was not. Still the corpses came. By 1774 they were spilling over again and it took an Act of Parliament to ‘enable the feoffees (holders of a fiefdom, I understand…) of Mr Roan’s estate to sell a messuage or tenement‘ which, although measured in the arcane units of perches, roods and poles, appears to be much the same size as the other parcel of land. Inflation – or good bargaining – gleaned £500 for that particular transaction. A bit of that was later sold off to a Messingham Shepherd for £350, because surely no one would need all that land just for stiffs.

On reflection, that was probably an unwise idea, since the dead have a habit of continuing to turn up. By 1808 a further enlargement became ‘absolutely necessary,’ since ‘decent interment of the bodies in the churchyard and burial ground could not be obtained.’

Thomas Neate, esq. was eventually prevailed upon to give up part of his garden for £1500 – not that he could have been too bothered since he didn’t live there.  His tenant, whose garden it was, one Thomas Kealley, was probably less pleased – especially when the parishioners, ‘in vestry’, only kept an acre and a quarter of his back yard and flogged the rest off to someone else, a Mr John Pearson, who they clearly saw coming – he paid £1700.

And that takes me to 1816, when my copy of An Account of the Legacies, Gifts, Rents, Fees &etc Appertaining to the Church and Poor of the Parish of St Alphege Greenwich in the County of Kent, a snappily-titled charity-book sold in aid of the poor women in the Jubilee Almshouses, runs out. I need to move to other publications for the later history of the churchyard – the reasons for its becoming a park and the headstones to be placed around the perimeter – and time moves on apace. All that’s for another day…

So Where From Here?

Monday, September 26th, 2011

I have been haunted all day by Rob at’s story about the sanctioned vandalism of headstones at St Alfege’s church .

Of course the first thing that has to happen is that whoever thought this was a good idea needs to be discovered and fired. I find it hard to imagine that a group calling themselves the ‘friends’ of St Alfege’s park would have done something like this, but since no one’s actually denying anything just now, it’s looking a bit dodgy. Certainly I can see some young offenders on the Payback scheme enjoying themselves hugely at getting to smash stuff up but didn’t their supervisors think to themselves ‘hmm – this seems a bit odd?’ at any point?

I’m not sure what the legal implications of desecrating these monuments are. I  mean if a bunch of teenage herberts were found to have done far less than this off their own bat, there would have been all hell to pay. There would be pictures of grieving families in the local paper, and someone would be telling us Society’s gone to the dogs. But this was, seemingly, ‘official.’

Actually, when I say ‘I’m not sure’  about the legal implications, I mean ‘I know nothing about them,’ of course. Perhaps that’s why no one’s actually saying anything yet, they’re busy hurriedly consulting lawyers. I am sure that the national newspaper that’s been in touch with Rob will be able to shed some light on it (well done, Rob, for getting them on board…)

But what I’m thinking now is this. What’s to be done with this high-quality rubble? I am sure the perpetrators will be keen to get this out of people’s sight as soon as possible – but surely that will compound their crime even more appallingly.

To me it would be a huge shame merely to load it up onto a lorry and cart it off for hardcore – surely some of it could be saved, and used for something cool, and while a sort of jigsaw-crazy-paving scheme could be rather good, I think we should think bigger.

We have umpteen artists here in Greenwich. I bet someone could come up with a really great installation using the pieces that will, perhaps, go some way to offsetting this cultural crime while at the same time honouring both the dead  - and the historic value of a thousand-year-old church (Yes, yes,  I know the graveyard’s only several hundred years old, but that does not in any way make this any less appalling.)

Ideas, folks. What should be done with these little shards of history?

Horror in the Graveyard

Monday, September 26th, 2011

Folks – I cannot say how shocked I am by this. I will leave Rob at to tell the tale but basically, a large number of ancient headstones at St Alfege’s churchyard – the ones that surrounded the perimeter – have been reduced to hardcore. It’s unclear exactly who did this yet, but the horror is that the vandalism does not seem to have been mindless – it was sanctioned – and just now it seems that the very ‘friends’ of St Alfege park are those responsible.

I am speechless.


Monday, September 26th, 2011

And the cuts continue. At a time when many people will need it more than ever, Greenwich Community Law Centre in Trafalgar Road is to close.

It’s not like it’s underused. It currently has approximately 760 cases and was the ONLY provider of free help and advice of all five areas of law (welfare benefits, housing, employment, immigration, and debt) under one roof in the entire borough.

The closest place people can go to receive legal advice will now be in Woolwich, meaning that for those in West / East Greenwich and Charlton that’s a big old trudge. Terry, from the centre tells me

“Plumstead Law Centre was awarded the contract for immigration work despite having NO qualified personnel at the time of the bid to deal with this area of advice, whereas Greenwich Law Centre did have a fully qualified adviser already in place, yet their bid for this area of law was rejected”.

There seems to be a fantasy that everyone who lives in Greenwich has a delightful six-bed in Hyde Vale to match their six-figure salary. And it’s true that there are a lot of wealthy people living in the town – but there is another side to a place that has traditionally seen whole areas of people who lived to serve the now non-existent docks warehouses and factories. We may not have the same numbers of poorer people living here as Woolwich or Plumstead, but that doesn’t mean people don’t need access to law services.

Terry has suggested people write to their MP. Given for most of us that’s Nick Raynsford, I wish Terry luck.

Top Hats Bonnets and Deerstalkers

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Several people have been asking what the filming at the ORNC is. Stephen’s just been snapping away and tells me that it’s for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows aka Sherlock Holmes 2.

A quick peek at IMDB (and the costumes of course) tells me that this is the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jnr. version, rather than the BBC offering.


Aiden missed any actual shooting, but he did see the set – rather modest by Pirates of the Caribbean standards; hopefully that will mean they’ve spent the cash on a proper script…

…and the star. This is my fave picture of the lot, not for RDJ himself, but for the giggling girl in the background who can’t quite believe she’s seen him…


Ben’s just sent a couple more pics, of Rober Downey Junior chatting to visitors.

However cheesy, I do find that I warm to stars who make an effort to talk to people while they’re filming. When a community feels involved in a project, they engage (which is where that ghastly Run to the Beat noise-pollution-Greenwich-as-jail-cell fiasco fails in utter spades). Admittedly I was going to go and see Sherlock Holmes II anyway, but now I will be going with an even brighter frame of mind.

And this kid will treasure being beaten up by a film star when his bruises go down ;-)

Charlton Bomb Map

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Chris has just asked where I got the Charlton Bomb Map from. To be brutally honest I can’t remember; it was in my image-folder unmarked (I’m very bad at putting sources for stuff on my notes) but I’ll put money on it having been something the very fine Stephen from Blitzwalkers who knows more about Greenwich’s war history than anyone else I can think of would have sent me.

I’m sure he can tell you some more, but in the meanwhile his last Greenwich Blitz Walk of this year will be 232rd October – more details can be found on his website.

Among My Souvenirs

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

In the virtual mail this morning I learned a little more about Greenwich Mural Workshop’s latest project – not made from paint or mosaic this time, but of memories. The Charlton Parks Reminiscence Project has been going for some months now, and since it’s about half-way through, they’re holding a special open day to share what they’ve found out so far.

They’re especially keen to talk with people who have lived in the area for many years and they’ve already unearthed some great stories, maps, history – and ‘new’ old photos of the area, including the opening of Maryon Park in 1909. This is clearly not it (you’ll have to go to the open day to see that) but who can resist country dancing?

There’s still lots of time to get involved, whether you’re interested in training as a volunteer archivist/interviewer/recorder/editor, helping to create an interactive website or just telling people about some of the things that happened in Charlton to you. Perhaps you’re one of the kiddies in this picture of the doughty Mrs Etherington, her tubby chum and the Exmoor ponies…

…or you remember a time when Charlton Lido was actually open.

Whichever, the open day looks like a fascinating experience. It’s on Saturday, 1st October, in the old library at Charlton House itself, between 1-4pm.

While you’re there, make sure you pick up a copy of what I received in the real post this morning, sent by Steve (thanks, Steve – and a doff of the tricorn to the Phantom Webmaster for forwarding it…), a handy little colour booklet, The Gardens at Charlton House which, had I had a copy back in July, I wouldn’t have publicly made an ass of myself by not knowing that the strange Mystery Obelisk in Charlton House’s back yard is actually a real ancient Roman stone, the sole survivor of a whole garden full of ornaments, presumably also looted from Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson’s Grand Tour, and somewhat arcanely decorated with a lizard, scorpion, two snakes, a crab and an urn. D’oh… Why didn’t I get it? The laurel tree next to it should have a clue.

Ah, well. I no longer need to be a Charlton ignoramus. I can go to the Charlton Parks Reminiscence Project’s Open Day, pore over maps, listen to interviews and see newly-discovered photos –  and pick up a spare copy of The Gardens at Charlton House. Both, I understand are free.