Archive for February, 2012

The Clarence Music Hall

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Yup folks, I’m still enjoying the Greenwich Theatre Book – an incredibly slim volume that punches above its weight and provides a really excellent base for further digging. It’s made all the more mysterious by the fact that I can hardly open the thing for fear of it falling apart (it’s not mine or I would be far less careful…), so I can only dip in occasionally.

Today’s post isn’t really about Greenwich Theatre – or not the building, at least. But a brief mention in the book made me look again at another Greenwich venue. Over the years there have been a fair few places of entertainment, ranging from the highbrow (not many of them, ‘fraid) to the rather less salubrious establishments (plenty to see there…) From trestle-stages to purpose-built palaces, serious legit-stuff to – well, a few things the Lord Chamberlain would have got a bit hot under the ermine collar about. But by far the most popular of all were the music halls of Victorian Greenwich.

I’ll come to a big one that only died about forty years ago another day, because today, I want to concentrate on one that survives – in fact I understand it’s the oldest surviving purpose-built music hall there is – though it’s a mere shadow of its former self.

Where is it? Well – it’s here:

Still can’t see it? Look up – at the rooms spanning the bridge between the Admiral Hardy and – well, the other side. The Clarence Music Hall was incorporated into the original design of Greenwich Market by Joseph Kay when Greenwich was being gentrified in the 1830s, presumably as a sop to the working classes whose houses were being bulldozed to make way for it.

Admittedly the market had got a bit out of hand, with pushcarts and market stalls all over the place – up alleyways, blocking roads, stuffing every courtyard with stinking vegetables, animals being slaughtered any-old-where and generally annoying the toffs.

Joseph Kay was put in charge of making the new market pretty – and, from what’s left of it, he did a good job. There was a designated slaughterhouse area, room for stables for the stallholders’ horses and, of course a good, large central bit for the stalls themsleves.

The Admiral Hardy was one of the first pubs up and running in the complex and they decided to use the upstairs room spanning the market’s trendy new entrance as a music hall. The Royal Clarence Theatre opened in 1839. I’m assuming it was named for William IV (the erstwhile Duke of Clarence) who was popular in Greenwich, ostensibly because of his life as a sailor before becoming king, but probably as much, if not more so, because of his saucy former life and his openly living with a mistress. Greenwich has always liked characters.

The entrance was at Number 7a and you had to climb the stairs to get to it, adding to the back-room salaciousness of it all. If it had started out as trying to be a legitimate theatre (which I can’t see that it ever did) it definitely wasn’t after 1845, when it gave up even trying to sound posh and just called itself the Clarence Music Hall.

It was run by the Mitchell family, who also owned the pub, until 1860, but it carried on after they gave it up, until it was forcibly closed by the authorities for being too popular. It used to cram 250 people in to a 46ft x 24ft room and even the Victorians, not known for being particularly obsessed with safety, thought that might be a few too many.

However the room still existed, and continues to exist, despite two remodellings of the market – 1908 and 1958.

Each time, whatever happened to the inside of the market, Joseph Kay’s exterior stayed, and, thanks to its being part of the very fabric of the outside, the music hall has stayed too, an airy, high-roofed affair with windows both sides, onto the street and the market below. Its raison d’etre now gone, it became a bit of everything, as such places tend to be, including an engineering workshop. In 1964 it was converted to a TV/Film studio. I don’t know for whom. It’s far too early for Greenwich Cablevision.

A 1991 book by Darrell Spurgeon says it was, at the time he was writing, mooted to be a museum, but it would seem that that money started talking. It became the Time Bar and then of course, INC with those Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen designs and the erotic wallpaper. At least I assume the erotic wallpaper’s still there – haven’t been in ages, since it’s now not open except as ‘Clarence Hall,’ a space for hire. At least it’s kept the name…

There’ s much more music hall to be had around these parts, but for now, if you fancy finding out at least a flavour of what the old halls would have been like, I note there’s going to be an evening of music hall at Greenwich Theatre on 11th March.

Love on the Line

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Okay – here’s a charming, romantic little Greenwich tradition for St Valentine’s Day. Any ideas where it is? No?

How’s about I zoom out a bit from Graham’s photo…

Got it yet? Yeaaaaaah. I guess it doesn’t take too much working out to fathom that this small but growing collection of padlocks declaring undying amour for one’s true love is on the Meridian Line just outside the Observatory:

Graham, author of On the Line and whose excellent website is, frankly, everything you’ll ever need to know about The Greenwich Meridian (check out the fabulous-but-doomed Millennium Tree Line page, for example) has a whole collection of photos of the very spot over the years, but the padlocks are a relatively recent addition. Perhaps it’s teenage tourists, perhaps local lovers – perhaps a bit of both. Who can tell. Beats carving up trees, I say, both harmless and sweet.

For some  perverse reason they remind me a little of the Skateboard graveyard on Hungerford Bridge though I don’t know of a website where people leave electronic billets doux for the Greenwich Padlocks. Do let me know if there is one.

A few weeks ago, Graham was a bit worried because some workmen were doing ‘stuff’ to the railings and he thought the padlocks may have been removed. But I went up to check and it seems that Royal Parks are a romantic bunch. The locks are still there.


Happy Valentine’s Day folks.

Wendy Mead

Monday, February 13th, 2012

It’s always depressing when someone asks ‘what do you know about such and such,’ you google it and all you can find is your own bloomin’ blog.

At least when I did exactly that a couple of days ago, the references were in the comments section and the person who asked me about it was someone who could actually furnish me with some answers.

As I’ve often said, it’s easier to find ancient history about Greenwich than it is to find stuff from the 20th Century, so it’s always something special when I ‘meet’ someone who was a mover and shaker in the community at a time when – well, to be honest, I was just too darn young and arrogant to care about history.

I’ve been talking to the fascinating Hilary Peters, whose extraordinary memories of Greenwich quaysides, the docks, the gangsters, the petty criminals, the local characters – and her own remarkable contribution (teh next part of which  I will come to, I promise – you’ll all know it…)  in the 1960s and 70s are not the only thing worth discussing.

Today’s post is a ‘partial’, though, because this is a recent local character – and I think there is much more to be said about a woman for whom, when I googled her, the only comments that came up always had the word ‘wonderful’ in front of her name. I’m hoping that you folks will chip in with memories (I’d LOVE a photo…) to go with what Hilary’s told me about Wendy Mead. Hilary says “there won’t be anyone of our generation who doesn’t remember her,” so I have high hopes.

Wendy kept a shop at the bottom of Royal Hill, in a Georgian Row. If you’re looking for it now, forget it. The council compulsorily-purchased it and pulled it down, which makes me think it must have been where the Burney Street Garden is now and, of course, where Doug Mullins had his dairy. From what I’m hearing, Doug’s not the only chap who should have a plaque.

For Wendy’s wasn’t just a grocery store, though “her smoked streaky was unsurpassed in South East London” and her cheddar the ‘best in the capital’, which is quite a claim.  It was something more. There was a front room where the usual buying and selling went on – and a back room where “there was always someone in tears.”

Hilary tells me that Wendy Mead made social workers unnecessary; an insomniac who sliced bacon all day and did crosswords all night,” and in between the two managed to counsel anyone who needed it and tell stories to those who just needed to be entertained.
I wish someone had written down her stories – of her childhood in Deptford, of the war, when she worked for the muniments in Woolwich, of Greenwich in the Blitz. Perhaps someone did and they’re in the Heritage Centre – or they just have them in a box somewhere. Any chance of a peek?
Hilary tells me she was on ‘both sides of the class war,” a woman who lived in Hyde Vale in a house with a cellar under the street complete with a (sadly blocked) tunnel to the park, but who also ran a support group for prisoners’ wives, and believed in education for all at a time when it wasn’t a popular idea.
When the council was trying to get rid of Wendy’s store (I’m assuming it was during the dark days when certain people thought it was a great idea to flatten the town centre and put a motorway through it – and no, I’m not kidding…) a fund was set up to fight her corner. Greenwich was much fuller of artists and bohemians then (they are still around but in far fewer numbers) and Jill Day-Lewis, actress and wife of Cecil set up a petition and wrote to Getty, who their daughter had worked for, for a signature. He sent a fiver, too, which Hilary now tells me she sent back (“I never told Wendy that one,” she says.)
After she lost the shop, Wendy went on to become a school secretary, and that’s all I have. I don’t even know when she passed away.
So, as I say, a partial today. I would welcome chippings-in. But I do have to mention one other thing. Wendy Mead is also a character in a book – Every Deadly Sin by D.M. Greenwood. I have ordered a copy and will get back to you on that one…

Greenwich Building Society

Friday, February 10th, 2012

I came across this little pamphlet recently and couldn’t decide whether to be excited or just plain depressed. It was written in another Jubilee year, 1977, but in very different times – times when mutual building societies were still something to be proud of. The past 35 years have seen them asset-stripped by the greedy in the 1980s – first demutualised, then sold, and now, in Greenwich’s case, closed.

It’s all a far cry from the spirit in which this booklet was written, which in its turn was created as an update to a previous volume, written twenty five years before that - Greenwich Building Society – The First Hundred Years.

The author, Gerald Brown, the society’s Chief Executive weaves the Greenwich institution’s history around a more general history of the Building Society movement, dating back to the earliest one in Birmingham back around 1775. They started as small thrift-clubs to help members – well, build houses, actually. They were fixed-term – designed to stop after all the members had paid back the money they’d used to build specific houses, but around 1840 the first ‘permanent’ building societies were born, more like those (few) we have left today.

Greenwich was amongst the first towns to join the building society bandwagon. The first Society in London was the Greenwich Union, though the only records about it are court reports of a member being sued for non-payment, and his accusation that the Society was an illegal and mischievous institution. Had the member won that particular case, the whole Building Society movement would have been dead in the Thames.  He lost.

The Borough of Greenwich Building Society, came into existence in 1843. At the time of writing, they still held the minute books from 1852-5. I don’t know what happened to them; I hope they’re safe somewhere. Several founders of that institution were also responsible for the Industrial Building Society in 1852, which eventually became the Greenwich Building Society.

Keeping up?  I’m not convinced I am, but hey. It’s further complicated by the fact that  societies were all organised on a part-time basis so was quite normal for people to be on the boards of several building societies and even do each other’s books.

The trustees were local community worthies. Here’s Dr. Prior Purvis, Chairman of the Board for 47 years:

He was on the board of several societies and a trustee of the Literary Institution in Royal Hill (where The Greenwich Society for the Acquisition and Diffusion of Useful Knowledge met…) and at least three building societies met there too.

Now  Harriet, are you sitting comfortably? Because I’m about to mention your great, great grandfather. For those who don’t know who Harriet’s great great grandfather was, and who know about my pathological aversion to family history of all kinds, I made an exception in the case of Harriet’s great, great grandfather Henry Richardson because he was such a character and seems to have had a finger in just about every 19th Century Greenwich pie. This document seems to also have him as an insurance agent, as well as printer, stationer and historian:

Building Societies were just another Greenwich pie to him. He was Treasurer of the Society until a rather public spat broke out where both he and Dr Purvis were forced to resign over letter-of-the-rules stuff, though I suspect that he still made some money since both sides of a weirdly vicious-but-at-the-same-time-punishingly-dry argument went on to have their own set of amended rules printed, presumably by Richardson. The opposition was led by local ironmonger, gas fitter and bell-hanger, Josiah Haycraft.

The spat ended at a meeting in the Concert Room in Royal Hill, on 20th April 1865, when the members voted in favour of Purvis and Richardson. Richardson didn’t re-take his position but Purvis did, and stayed there ’til he died. I assume Haycraft went back to bell-fitting.

The real power behind the throne, though, seems to have been this slightly scary-looking chap:

This is Peter Blake (obviously long before he went onto Sgt. Pepper fame and fortune…) Local schoolmaster (at Maze Hill, Drapers and Church Fields) turned estate agent, Blake set up a network of agencies, and presumably had good reason to encourage building societies. To his credit, he did press for a series of regulatory laws, and his evidence at a Royal Commission helped lead to an Act in 1874.

By 1873 the Society had more than 450 borrowers and by 1886, £207,000 of assets. But much like today, the markets fluctuated and the crash of the (fraudulently managed) Liberator Building Society in 1892 was a serious blow to establishments like the one in Greenwich. It took until the turn of the 20th Century for things to right themselves, but the big expansion was still to come.

The inter-war years of the 1920s and 30 saw a huge boom in building – and funds for building societies. I note from the lists of people involved one F.J. Simpson, Town Clerk of Greenwich on the board. I’m sure I’ve seen his name somewhere. Is it on the plaque inside the Arches leisure centre?

In 1935, the Lecture Hall in Royal Hill was to be demolished for the Borough Hall, and they needed new premises, which they found in Greenwich High Road. They bought the place for £1600, and one of the partners’ brothers Mr P.B. Dannatt, a local architect  responsible for some of the Roan School buildings, did the modifications.

On  24th January 1945 two partners, Mr Dannatt and Mr Jackson were both injured by a doodlebug at their own offices in Nelson Road. Thankfully for them, it wasn’t too serious, but the Westminster bank building was badly damaged and I suspect that’s the bomb that did for Richardson’s shop, too.

You would have thought that after the war, building societies would have done very well, given the amount of homeless people, but homeless also often meant jobless and although there was a massive fund in the building society, there were few loans being made.

When the author joined the Industrial Building Society in 1952, he was worried about the negative connotations of the name, thinking that people might think they only lent money for industrial buildings. It had come for two reasosn – 1) that the word Greenwich was already in use by another Society and 2) it referred to the ‘industrial classes’, but the world had moved on.

After a series of unsuccessful merger talks and half-name changes, the Greenwich Building Society was finally renamed a hundred years after it was formed.

The 60s saw mergers a-go-go, with the Greenwich Building Society subsuming pretty much all comers. It seems to have been a bit cutthroat, even then. At the time of writing, Gerald Brown is proud to say that the Greenwich Building Society was always the larger of whichever two companies were merging. This was not always to be the case.

P.B. Dannatt’s son remodeled the Society’s offices in modern style in the 1970s – I think it’s pretty obvious where they are, in case you weren’t sure before:

So what went wrong? Well, I guess it continued to be a dog-eat-dog world and eventually, after having swallowed up so many smaller fishes in a relatively small pond, the Greenwich Building Society finally found its pike. The Portman, one of the few mutuals left in the 1990s, took it over in 1997 and swam around in a slightly larger pond for a while before finding a pike of its very own. The Nationwide stepped in and – well, if you don’t know that sorry story, I am sure Darryl at 853 will be only too happy to enlighten you..

Just one last thing.

Right at the very end of the book, Mr. Brown mentions his personal wine cellar, situated in the basement of their extended offices, a perk of which I wholeheartedly approve. He points out that the building was, after all the Three Tuns public house, so it’s only right and proper. He mentions that on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the company’s founding, he’ll be taking out a bottle of 1961 claret, imported by Lovibonds and, ‘politicians permitting, drink the health of the Greenwich Building Society.

I wonder – what happened to that wine cellar? Did Mr Brown drown his sorrows in claret to mark the passing of the company five years short of 150 years since its founding, in 1997? Did he hold out for 2002 and make a fist of remembrance with those who knew it – or is it still out there?

It would have been 160 years old this year. If it’s still unopened, now’s as good as ever. There’s probably not much hope in holding out for a return of a building society…

You Know What They Say About Yellow Snow…

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Okay so Matt was cycling along the Thames Path – you know – the bit just past Greenwich Yacht Club, going into Charlton, just before you get to that aggregates dock, just around the corner, when he came across some very odd, ‘huge, thick, slightly yellowy’ icicles on the bushes.

As you’ll see from the first pic, it’s only these bushes that are affected. “It was freezing cold, but not wet,” Matt says, “so all neighbouring bushes and trees were completely ice-free. Whereas these ones are not only covered in icicles, but really thick, blobby, bulbous, slightly alien-looking icicles.”

Matt – and I – would like to know what caused this phenomenon. “Also,” he adds, “if they’re not made of frozen rainwater, which would be the implication, then what are they made of? And should we be scared?”

I guess the yellow coud be all the salts and the sand that has been coming in on various ships for donkey’s years, and perhaps the wind has chilled that particular stretch more than others but in truth I don’t know. So, all you geologers out there, what gives?

In the meanwhile, you know what they say about yellow snow…

PS Word to the wise – in warmer times of the year, this little stretch of path can be quite slidey under the tyres because of all the loose sand. At the moment, I suspect said sand is actually helping….

Mess Around

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

I Say asks:

Are local dog owners going to be instructed to get their act together before the Olympics? The area around The Royal Standard is dreadful; in the last week I have seen 3 full plastic bags of dog poo left at the side of the pavement, what/who do the dog owners expect to remove these? I have given up looking at the sky as the pavements are often fouled,  with the pavement immediately outside Simply Food in Old Dover Road being a regular target. When the park is closed the Heath and surrounding roads and pavements will become even worse…

The Phantom replies:

I confess I hadn’t really noticed the area around the Standard being particularly bad for dog mess but it does seem to be an issue all over the town. In West Greenwich vigilante groups have been painting signs on pavements and neighbouring Lewisham have even had entire events based around this antisocial practice (though I have to say that, being a puerile Phantom I found the local paper’s listing rather amusing – soz…)

Thing is, I suspect that the people reading this post are not the people who are allowing their dogs to foul footpaths. If you’re interested enough in your area to read a blog about it, it’s unlikely you’re going to mess it up.

What’s the answer?


Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Jane noticed this fine new sign on Creek Road Deptford. She says “do you think that Woolwich has our “west” signs… and if so can we have them back?”

What I think has happened is the council workers who were assigned to the task of erecting the sign are taking advantage of the new age discrimintation rules and are so elderly that they yearn for the good old days when Central Greenwich was called the Manor of East Greenwich, a few hundred years ago. In which case they would only be ever so slightly wrong instead of what I suspect is, well, completely wrong…

Royal Fireworks

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Here’s one of a series of fabulous photos Wizzbowes took of Sunday evening’s fireworks. You can see the rest here

Public Memorial

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

An anonymous reader asks:

What is your take on the subject of flowers/t-shirts/candles/photos being left at the site of a traffic accident? I’m all for the ‘ghost bikes’ as they make a very pertinent point about public safety on the highways and of course, everyone needs to grieve, but after more than two years on I can’t help feeling tributes would be better suited to a more appropriate memorial venue. I know it’s a highly sensitive subject matter – and I certainly wouldn’t want to offend family & friends, but when does a public highway cease being such and instead become a personal memorial?


Hmm – an interesting question and one that I honestly don’t know my feelings on. I, too, would like to know what people’s opinion is on this most sad of subjects. It’s a painful time for the people who have been directly – or indirectly – affected by the death of cyclists on London’s and, more locally, Greenwich’s roads – and we do have the depressing ‘honour’ of several such memorials.

How long do you think they should stay, though? If they are being constantly refreshed and are clearly being cared for, does that make a difference?

I can’t help feeling that the fact that there hasn’t been a new ghost bike for a while (thank heavens) could be partially due to the ‘reminders’ we have at dangerous junctions (after all, no real change has been made to safety provision in that time at those places). But is there a point when the streets should be refreshed and mourning become a more private affair?

Greenwich Then and Now (7)

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Isn’t this glorious?

It’s a (very rare) postcard of the interior of the Pavillion Cafe in Greenwich Park, up by the Observatory – this one, in case your memory needs jogging:

And what a picture. I just love the chandelier – they really knew how to take afternoon tea in Edwardian times. The splendid clock on the wall, the chintz curtains, the grand cabinet of sugary goodies at the back courtesy of Mr J. Hendry (presumably the proprietor) the groovy gas lamps, the floral arrangements, the carved wooden/marble counter, the windsor chairs and the marble tables – it’s all just so – well, civillised.

John Bold tells me it was built between 1906-7 by Sir Henry Tanner of the Board of Works and cost a memorable £1066. It was originally open around the outside at the bottom, with a veranda, which would have looked much daintier – the colonnaded balcony was covered-in in 1967.

Here’s pretty much the same scene now:

It’s okayl – in fact, apart from their frankly steep prices for what you get – the fare is unexciting but does a job, but I still think it’s far too expensive even given its situation – I quite like the cafe now, with its double-decker mezzanine and bright lighting, along with the extra bit around the outside, where they filled in the balcony.

But I can’t help rather wishing I could step into my time machine, don my Edwardian tweed cloak and tricorn and enjoy afternoon tea from the pavillion’s true heyday…