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Sunday, 29 March 2020

Phyllis Pearsall 1906-1996

Another hero of London and its infrastructure and another all but forgotten name. Phyllis Pearsall is commemorated by a London Borough of Southwark plaque at 3 Court Lane Gardens in leafy Dulwich where she was brought up as the daughter of Alexander Gross a Hungarian Jewish immigrant and Isabella Crowley, an Irish-Italian Roman Catholic suffragette. Her parents relationship was troubled and they went their separate ways. Phyllis was educated at the private Roedean school until her fathers business went bust. She then led a restless life marrying, and later leaving Richard Pearsall, an friend of her brother and working as a tutor and as a shop assistant in France before returning to London. She worked as a portrait painter before, as the story goes she failed to find her way to a party in Belgravia so decided to make a completely new map of London. This she apparently did by getting up at 5am each morning and walking every one of London’s 23,000 streets, not going to bed until she had finished an 18 hour day. The result was the A-Z, the first street atlas of London a publication so ubiquitous that it was used in the BBC series as the one book that every Londoner has a copy of and which could be used as the key to a cypher. The truth however is rather more vexed. The head of maps at the British Museum for one believes that Pearsall's reputation was self-perpetuated myth-making. He asserts that Pearsall’s father had been a map-maker and produced map books of London that were almost identical to the A-Z. He believes that Pearsall simply updated these maps to include the newly built areas of outer London, probably by simply calling on the planning department of various local councils street maps and calling the result the ‘A-Z’. This may explain why English Heritage declined to award Pearsall a blue plaque. It should be said that while Barber's assertions may be correct English Heritage are (slowly) attempting to address the unbalance between male and female plaque recipients shining a little more light on female contributions to British society.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998)

On a recent trip to Chelsea a new plaque was discovered, one erected only a couple of months ago after the 20 year rule whereby English Heritage will only erect a plaque 20 years after the recipient is deceased to allow an objective appraisal of their fitness to be made. The recipient of the plaque erected at 72 Cadogan Square; designed by Richard Norman Shaw in 1878 is Martha Gellhorn, who to work backwards committed suicide in the flat that she had occupied since 1970. She was suffering from ovarian and liver cancer and was almost blind. A terrible affliction for one who had made her life through observing. The flat, which comprised the top floor and the attic of the building was by all accounts 'sparsely furnished... [and] ... a little austere. Gellhorn entertained friends and admirers from the worlds of literature and journalism there. Gellhorn's journalistic career lasted over thirty years beginning with a move to Paris before finding fame chronicling the Great Depression of 1934 for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, an experience that was the basis of a book of short stories written in a clear, simple style. The Trouble I've Seen published in 1936 expressed Gellhorn's anger at the way that the poor, the weak and the dispossessed were being treated. Gelhorn who supported the Republican cause travelled to Spain with Ernest Hemingway who she met in Key West and reported in a partisan fashion on the Spanish Civil War for The New Yorker and Collier's. They were to marry in December 1940 and divorce in 1945. Gellhorn stayed in Europe reporting from Czechoslovakia and Germany in the run-up to war. A time she recalled in A Stricken Field (1940). hen the war began she determined to 'follow... the war wherever I could reach it.' She was hindered in this however by her lack of press credentials occasioned by US policy forbidding female correspondents. She reported from the Italian front and later reported on D-Day tby hiding in a hospital ship bathroom, and later, impersonated a stretcher bearer. She later reported on the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, an experience documented in The Wine of Astonishment in 1948. A collection of Gellhorn's war articles was published as The Face of War in 1959. This was updated in 1967 and 1986 and 1993 taking in her reportage from conflicts from across the globe. This included impassioned pieces condemning US involvement in Vietnam and long critical articles about Palestinian refugees. Gellhorn is remembered in the Nartha Gellhorn award for Journalism a fitting legacy for one who was highly influential in the practice of journalism.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

William Henry Pratt 1887-1969

Not a name that sparks a memory is it? Perhaps thats why the plaque found at 36 Forest Hill Road, a location now occupied by the Sea Master fish and chip shop notes two names. William Henry Pratt was born at the location in 1887. Its solid middle class area although perhaps lacked the cachet of the more prestigeous neighbouring area of Dulwich which might explain why young William claimed to come from that area. William was the youngest of nine children, and following his mother's death was brought up in Enfield. He attended Enfield Grammar School, and later the private schools of Uppingham School and Merchant Taylors' School. Following in hos elder siblings footsteps he went to King's College London with the intent of joining the Consular Service. He left before graduating and, instead emigrated to Canada in 1909. It's here that he changed his name to Boris Karloff, possibly in order to avoid embarrassing his family and began acting joining the Jeanne Russell Company in 1911, working manual jobs to make ends meet. This led to back problems which meant that he was not drafted in WWI. Instead he drifted south in various theatrical companies such as the Harry St. Clair Players, the Billie Bennett Touring Company, the Maud Amber Players and the Haggerty Repertory Company until beginning work in the embryonic Hollywood taking minor roles in silent movies. His first major role was in The Hope Diamond Mystery in 1920 and he worked solidly through the twenties before working with Howard Hawks in The Criminal Code (1930) and Scarface (1931) clocking up 80 film appearances It was his work with another Briton, James Whale that Karloff would largely be remembered. In 1931 Whale who was already well established in Hollywood cast Karloff as the Monster in the Universal Studios telling of the story of Frankenstein. The film was a huge hit both with critics and with the public. The image of the monster which Universal copyrighted is still instantly recognisable. Once the success of the film became evident Karloff became recognised in the horror genre making The Old Dark House,The Mask of Fu Manchu and The Mummy in 1932 and the Ghoul in 1933 and The Black Cat and The Gift of the Gab in 1934. Karloff reprised his breakthrough role in 1935 in The Bride of Frankenstein, The Son of Frankenstein in 1939, House of Frankenstein in 1944. He also worked with Howard Hawks on The Criminal Code (1931) and Scarface (1932). He left Universal for RKO feeling the the Frankenstein franchise had run its course. He worked at his new studio with Val Lewton appearing in The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead in 1945 and Bedlam in 1946. After the war horror films were out of vogue so Karloff switched to other roles notably in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947).His career made the leap to television after the war appearing regularly as a panellist on NBC's "Who said that". He also worked extensively on stage playing Jonathan Brewster in the original production of Arsenic and Old Lace. He continued to work on radio. At times spoofing his horror career. His film career also took in AIP films in the 1960s working with Mario Bava and Roger Corman in Black Sabbath and The Raven respectively. Thus late resurngence also encompassed roles in The Comedy of Terrors in 1964 and Die Monster Die! in 1967. He has not one but two stars of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He died of Emphysema in 1969.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

The Admiral Duncan bombing - 20 years on

A sad coincidence but on my previous peregrination which took in the southern edge of Soho I also passed the Admiral Duncan pub in Old Compton Street just down the road from the plaque that marked the great Dangeroo Flood. Twenty years ago today 3 people, Andrea Dykes, Nick Moore and John Light were killed and 78 were wounded by the third in a series of nail bombs left by a right-wing extremist. The pub was crowded on the start of the May bank holiday and this accounts for the relatively high number injured. As this was the third in the series there was a considerable public information campaign in place. There was even a poster in the toilet warning of the possibility of an attack. The bomb exploded at 6:37 pm when the bag that contained it was being investigated by the pub manager.The previous two bombs left in Brixton Market and Brick lane targeted the black and asian communities respectively. These, fortunately resulted in no fatalities although 48 and 13 people were wounded after the bomber was noticed in Brixton, where his bomb was moved by a smallholder to a less crowded area and the police were called. In the case of the Brick Lane bomb when the bomber first set the bomb for Saturday rather than Sunday when a street market takes place and after the bomb was placed in a car boot in an attempt to deliver the bomb to a local police station. The Brixton attack is marked by a plaque was I have not yet seen. The Admiral Duncan has a small plaque placed by Queer Heritage, who place plaques marking places in the struggle for LGBTQ rights in 2017. Andrea Dykes, Nick Moore and John Light are also commemorated in the churchyard of St. Anne;s in Wardour Street.

Monday, 22 April 2019

The Great Dangeroo Flood and the Kymaerica Project

There is, above a non-descript coffee bar a square, black and gold plaque that marks the high water point of the "Great Dangeroo Flood" which it describes as "one of the worst floods of En'kymhuirian times". The plaque goes on to note that the Tehachapi people after two years at sea on their rafts of asphalt made their new home here after observing the familiar stars of their home overhead as the waters receded. The plaque was located by the Kymaerica project founded by Geographer-at-large Eames Demetrios which "is... a global project that tells the stories of this parallel world through books, performances, Internet, embroideries, guided collaborations, but perhaps most distinctively through installations—especially bronze plaques and historic sites that honor the parallel world in our linear world." The plaque then, marks a fictional event with a physical presence in the real world. There are other plaques in London, one of which off the Whitechapel Road has already been spotted. This marks "Angel Alley and Surrounds" where "the formidable Esther Tabran first saw the figure of Crown Prince Jyorge stepping out of Georges Yard. The website for the Kymaerica Project is, sadly, outdated. It notes 83 plaques being put in place , in 15 countries on 5 continents. The figures cited however refer to November 2011 and so may not be accurate. There is at least one other plaque in London which will need to be visited at some point. If there is one area of London that deserves a plaque to a non-existent event then Soho, home of the strange, moreso even than the rest of London. Old Compton Street marks the southern boundary of the area. An area that has traditionally housed incomers and outsiders - the Greeks, the Italians, the gay community and he entertainment industry although of late under a process of gentrification the area has certainly lost its edge.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

The Cornish Rebellion - 1497

A big thank you at the top to Mr and Mrs Kilburn who put us up and treated us to a cracking meal at the Five Rivers Indian Restaurant. They live in Plumstead and Wayne met us at the Woolwich DLR station and we decamped to Greenwich with the intent of taking in the (rapidly changing)London skyline from Greenwich Park. Alighting as we did on Charlton Way at the southern edge of Greenwich on our way through into the park on the brick wall I found a small bi-lingual plaque marking the site of the Battle of Deptford Bridge in 1497. Not exactly a well-publicised affair this one, a century after the Peasant's Revolt of 1381 and Jack Cade's rebellion this forgotten conflict involved some 35,000 men, 10,000 or so Cornish rebels and 25,000 of the King's forces and resulted in a thorough drubbing of the Cornishmen who lacked both cavalry and artillery. The rebellion came about in protest against Henry VII's raising of war taxes which abrogated Cornwall's traditional exemption. It began in the Bodmin area and was led by Michael Joseph, a blacksmith and Thomas Flamank, a lawyer who was MP for Bodmin in 1492. These two gathered support and marched East into Devon gathering support as they went. The army declared its grievances at Wells in Somerset where the rebels were joined by James Touchet, the seventh Baron Audley and continued unopposed towards the capital through Salisbury and then Winchester. The first clash occurred outside Guildford as the king drew his forces back from an intended incursion into Scotland. The plaque marks the place where the rebels met their end. After a significant number of desertions the rebels met the kings army on 17 June 1497. The royal army was divided into three under Lords Oxford, Essex,Suffolk and Daubeney and these routed the rebel army. Estimates of the Cornish dead range from 200 to 2,000. The leaders were captured, Joseph in Greenwich and Flamank and Audley at the site of the battle. They received the king's mercy which means that Joseph and Flamank were hanged at Tyburn on 27 June 1497 rather than being hanged, drawn and quartered whereas Audley as a gentleman was beheaded at Tower Hill. The quincentennial of the battle in 1997 was marked by a Keskerdh Kernow - a march that reenacted the long march from the West and the installation of the plaque. As I was in company of the Wayne and my other half (aka Mrs Hobbldy) I thought better of detouring in search of further plaques, Greenwich with its royal connections being a bit of a centre for people of historic interest and instead we descended Greenwich Park, moving from the Eastern to the Western Hemisphere, sadly we didn't get to do the straddling the Greenwich Meridian photo op as Greenwich Observatory had nicely decided to fence off the Meridian Line and charge admittance. This disappointment was however mitigated by the free National Maritime Museum at the bottom of the hill in the magnificent Wren designed building which was previously The Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, completed in 1705 as a counterpart to the Chelsea Hospital which provided for veterans of the British Army.Sadly there was filming at the old Greenwich Naval College, now part of the University of Greenwich which meant no stroll through its amazing riverside location - a little reminder that in times gone by the Thames was London'a main thoroughfare. Sadly our little jaunt went little further ending at the very nice, and rather overpriced surroundings of Greenwich market.

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Clapham Common Deep Shelter, The Drum and the Balham Station Bombing

The Brothers Hartnall's recent show at the Hammersmith Apollo meant a night in the smoke courtesy of Airbnb in W6. This allowed a lovely wander south of the river around Clapham Common and then a perambulation south to Balham Station on the day after the night before. We're going to have to backtrack here however and begin at the end of my days walk at Balham Underground Station which sits astride Balham High Road and was built in 1926 as part of the extension of the City and South London Railway to a design by Charles Holden, Frank Pick's architect of choice who had previously worked on war cemeteries in France and who brought his simple, modernist style to London Transport infrastructure. Like many of the stations on the Tube network Balham was used by the civilian population as a bomb shelter during World War II. This was initially discouraged by the government who believed that the population would remain in the Tube network after the bombing had ended. At the start of the Blitz however on 8th September 1940 a crowd broke through the locked gates at Liverpool St Station and the day afterwards the Minister for Home Security rescinded the policy and the population sought protection in the relentless bombing thereafter. On the Booking Hall at Balham are two plaques noting the events of 14-15 October 1940, when a 1,400 kg fell on the road above the north end of the platform, leaving a crater into which a double-decker bus crashed providing an iconic image of the Blitz. The tunnel partially collapsed and was filed with earth and water from fractured water and sewage pipes. Sixty-six were killed in an event that was hushed up by the authorities for fear of dissuading the civilian population from seeking shelter in the tube network. The event was used in Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, although the incorrect date is used in both the book and its film adaptation. These issues arelso noted further along the network by a very swish black and white Clapham Society plaque on the corner of Clapham High Street and Clapham Park Road which marks the entrance to Clapham Deep Shelter which was built in late 1942 after the government set up the London Passenger Transport Board who in turn came up with the idea of five deep shelters south of the river at at Clapham South, Clapham Common, Clapham North, Stockwell and Oval – and five to the north. These, it was intended would exist under the existing train tunnels but be connected to the existing Tube stations.The shelters were intended to have twin parallel tunnels 5 metres in diameter and 365 meters long divided into two decks that would accommodate 8000 people. By the time these were finished however the Blitz was all but over and the tunnels were repurposed, first as accommodation for American troops and after the invasion of Europe as a government installation and so was fitted out as offices and an extensive system of teleprinters, telephones and other telecommunications equipment were installed. After the war the Clapham Common shelter was used as an archive for government records until its decommissioning in 1952. This however was not the end of the line so to speak. In 2012 the site was re-employed as a hydroponic farm where produce can be growth for local use without racking up food miles. The Clapham South shelter situated on Balham Hill was used differently firstly as temporary accommodation for some of Britain's first postwar Caribbean immigrants who arrived on the ship MV Empire Windrush in 1948 as well as hotel accommodation for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and for visitors to the Queen’s coronation in 1953.