Saving for a rainy day

First invented in China over 4,000 years ago when some enterprising chap took the parasol that had been used to provide shelter from the sun and waterproofed its paper cone with wax and lacquer rendering it both ugly and waterproof. Before we had a drought the umbrella’s spiritual home was London. Originally designed as an accessory for women, it took a brave soul to promote its masculine use.

[E]nter writer and philanthropist Jonas Hanway who in the mid-18th century carried an umbrella for 30 years. His eccentric manner gave his name to the contraption – which previously had taken the Latin word ‘umbra’ meaning shade – and for a time it was referred to a ‘Hanway’.

His persistence came at a price for he incurred a good deal of ridicule, Hackney carriage drivers would try to splash Hanway and hustle him to the kerb because they feared the umbrella’s detri­mental effect on their foul-weather trade. The cabbies needn’t have worried you can never find a taxi in the rain to this day.

Due to our past inclement weather the umbrella has become a ubiquitous feature of London life and one shop has done more to promote its use than any other.

In 1830 James Smith opened London’s first dedicated umbrella shop in Soho’s Foubert’s Place. When the brolly business outgrew its cramped premises, Smith’s son, also called James, opened two new shops and the one in New Oxford Street remains to this day, a perfect example of a Victorian shop with its original brass and mahogany shop front and interior fittings.

With the continuous procession of buses parked in the road with their engine’s running inside it’s an oasis of calm. The service from the helpful staff are redolent of an earlier, less hurried age. Choose the wood you like, select the size of cover, be measured for the correct length and then wait for five minutes while the ferrule is fitted.

You might have to save for a rainy day for a bespoke brolly they cost £250 – £280 per umbrella. So for security the handle should on no account be adorned with a maker’s name so that upon it can be engraved your initials – especially useful to the waiters in those restaurants in which the differentiation of customers’ belongings carries a low priority, or when you inadvertently leave behind your precious brolly in my cab.

Now you are equipped – not simply with a well-made, properly functioning umbrella, but with a statement to the world in this the Jubilee Year that you are English and proud of it.

An incorrect address

London cabbie

While working as a cabbie how should I address you, and conversely when riding in the back of my cab by what name will you use to attract my attention? I’m sure cabbies from previous generations addressed their customers as “Guvn’r”, as the punters at the time were almost certainly male and middle class, and therefore in the manner of the day, would be regarded at a higher social standing.

But nowadays in a more egalitarian society much of the class structure of the last century seems to have been abandoned and also our customers are more likely to be women as much as men. Moreover many modern women will direct me as their male companion stands idly by.

[S]o how should my customers address me? “Taxi” is wrong on so many fronts, that I don’t know where to start; it is just that I don’t have 4 wheels.

“Cabbie” would seem an obvious choice, I’ve certainly earned that moniker, and it establishes our relationship; they the “customer” and I am for the duration of the journey their employee.

Or “Driver”, factually correct, but rather impolite to our native ears, and please not “Driv”, that just puts you at the bottom of the social class pecking order.

“Mate” or “Pal”, is a little, well, too intimate after all we’ve only known each other for a few minutes. Using “Guv” rather reverses the customer/servant relationship.

Our cousins from America seem to get it right, they nearly always address me as “Sir”, but curiously in a way that they retain their superiority, that is until the journey’s duration has exceeded 20 minutes, by which time Americans have usually introduced themselves and we address each other by our Christian names.

And more importantly, how should I address you – the customer?

“Sir”, “Guv’”, “Mate”, for the male of the species, possibly, but many of my customers would take offence.

And it is far from easy the ladies; “Madam”, “Dear” – both insulting or “Luv” – a bit personal or “Miss” a little demeaning?

Now all these are not just academic questions, because of our association with Europe, what becomes law in France will almost always drift across the Channel. For the French it would seem are taking their famous Liberté, égalité, fraternité to the Nth degree.

They apparently don’t like titles such as mademoiselle that set you apart from your other countrymen – or should that be countryperson? The French Prime Minister, François Fillon, has ordered that the term be removed from all official forms and registries. The decision, the report states, marks a victory for feminists who say the use of mademoiselle was demeaning to women. Insisting that their marital status need not be known every time they sign a form, or presumably hail a cab. Men in France are referred to as monsieur, or sir in English, regardless of their marital status. The campaigners wrote on their website that they “intended to end this inequality but also to inform women of their rights.”

So will the famously grumpy Parisian cabbies find a way that suits both sexes and a term that respects all ages when they address their customer, and for we in London what is it to be?

A match made in Hell

Bryant & May

[O]n Fairfield Road, Bow stands the Bryant & May match factory, which in 1980s became one of the first industrial buildings in London to be converted into apartments when it was renamed the Bow Quarter.

In the summer of 1888 what happened in this building was to change the history of the labour movement.

The match girls working there were regarded as the lowest strata of society; long hours in appalling conditions, hired and fired at the will of the management, and its workers suffering dreadful industrial injuries.

Bryant & May were regarded at the time as a model employer, much the same as the Cadburys, a similar Quaker employer who built for their workers the Bourneville village.

The Bryant & May strike started when a Fabian journalist Annie Besant after having interviewed some of the match girls wrote a scathing article of their life working in the factory. Entitled ‘White Slavery in London’ Besant highlighted that shareholders’ dividends of 20 per cent were achieved only by cutting their meagre wages lower than 15 years previously.

The youngest of the women were so malnourished they still looked like children; the factory foreman would beat employees; and if they succumbed to an industrial injury they were sacked.

Far worse than those conditions were phossy jaw where toxic particles from white phosphorous used in the match heads entered the workers jawbones through the holes in their teeth.

Initially causing facial swelling eventually the jaw would decay with pieces of bone working through the suppurating abscesses. In the final stages, like lepers, they would live outside London as the smell from their decaying jaw became intolerable, before they succumbed to an agonising death.

Besant’s article shocked the Nation and prompted the match girls to strike – the first of its kind in the country – it the sowed the seeds for the establishment of the modern Labour Party and women’s rights when employed.

Questions were raised in the House by MPs. the Times published editorials shaming the previously unblemished reputation of Bryant & May, and socialite George Bernard Shaw among others voiced his support for them. The match girls even received death threats from someone claiming to be Jack the Ripper, whose reign of fear started some weeks later in East London.

Within two weeks their demands had been met and they returned to work, but it would be a century later before Bryant & May would acknowledge any wrong doing on their part.

Just a year after the match girl’s victory thousands of the country’s most exploited workers would gain union recognition, the most famous being after the Dock Strike which began at short walk from Bryant & May’s factory in East London.

Annie BesantNext year marks the 125th anniversary of the strike which became a pivotal point in the trade union movement and employees working conditions. As Louise Raw remarked when interviewed on the Robert Elms show recently, now is the time to unveil a Blue Plaque alongside the one dedicated to Annie Besant, to those brave and exploited girls who had the temerity to take on a powerful employer – and win.

A far more comprehensive history of the match girls strike can be found on Louise Raw’s website.

Bush House pruned

To many of us Bush House in Aldwych is just an obstruction on our journey from Kingsway to Waterloo Bridge forcing us to take a detour around a rather large traffic island. But for many, particularly in Asia, Bush House is synonymous with the voice of the BBC, I have even had tourists wanting to visit the building like any other London attraction to take that mandatory picture beside the discreet brass plaque at its entrance.

[A]djacent to Australian House and the Indian High Commission, Bush House built in 1923 was originally constructed for an Anglo-American organisation headed by Irving T. Bush from whom it takes its name.

When it opened in July 1925, costing £2 million, it was considered the world’s most expensive building. The inscription above the portico inserted before the arrival of the broadcaster couldn’t be more apt for the BBC: ‘Dedicated to the friendship of English-speaking peoples’.

For almost 70 years Bush House has been the home of the BBC World Service broadcasting many of the world’s events to far flung countries. In January 1941, former director of the BBC’s Belgian French Service, Victor de Lavelee, suggested that Belgians use a ‘V’ or Victory’ sign as a rallying emblem, Churchill would later use this idea in his ‘V for Victory’ speech of 19th July, 1941. De Gaulle’s broadcasts to the Free French and some of Churchill’s famous speeches were transmitted from this building.

First called the BBC Empire Service and broadcasting in 45 languages, covering events that have changed the world, while giving unbiased news coverage to countries whose only means of information were largely governed by perspectives of their state, Bush House became a beacon for free speech. By 1941 more than 1,400 staff worked on international broadcasts, now they now only broadcast in 27 languages, one could extrapolate from that people speaking the 18 languages dropped can now trust their own internal media services.

The BBC has now terminated its lease with the Japanese owners of Bush House and has moved its reduced World Service to Broadcasting House.

The building inspired George Orwell to base the canteen featured in his Ministry of Truth in his book 1984 on the one at Bush House. When Orwell worked there he was involved in lengthy meetings and his infamous Room 101 is thought to relate to a room in Bush House.

In 1978, Bulgarian Service journalist Georgi Markov while standing on Waterloo Bridge felt pain in his thigh, and turning round saw a man picking up an umbrella, he returned to Bush House relating this rather odd incident. Three days later he died, it was assumed he was assassinated by a poisoned umbrella.

Bush House was so familiar with those beyond our borders some among the 150 listeners worldwide would address their letters: ‘BBC Bush House, London’, it was all that was required to ensure their correspondence arrived. Unlike the Media Centre, Salford Bush House remains for many the building which most represents the BBC and captured the imagination of the world.

Bog standard

No matter how glum I may feel driving around London the sight of a Pimlico Plumbers’ van with their amusing number plates.

W4TER, DRA1N, BOG 1 or my favourite 701LET is guaranteed to put a smile on my face.

If you want one for your home they have now even produced a diecast model of their iconic blue and white livered vans that you can buy.

[I] doubt if these miniatures announce “This Pimlico Plumbers van is reversing” as the full sized version does but I guarantee that when you purchase the model it will be as immaculately clean as the originals are maintained.

The company’s founder and Managing Director, Charlie Mullins, is the archetypical London boy made good. Bunking off school at the age of nine to help a local plumber, he couldn’t wait to stop his education early to become an apprentice plumber.

Once he became a journeyman plumber, and after a couple of false starts, he founded Pimlico Plumbers. His the success – and this should be memorised by every aspiring business leader, isn’t through any special business plans, strategies or forecasts, the core values established from the outset are still the key drivers to the business’ success today – quality of service.

Charlie looked at all the bad things people think about the plumbing industry: the ripping off, looking scruffy, dirty old van, making out that you can’t get the part, not finishing the job, never turning up on time. He reckons that if you just do the opposite to all the bad things you can’t fail.

Another unusual aspect of Pimlico Plumbers is their willingness to employ older staff; something that many of my generation have found to their cost, that employers are unwilling or unable to take on middle aged staff. Pimlico’s have gone way beyond that age demographic. George Gibbs, aged 83 of Snodland, sent an appeal out in his local newspaper and some of Pimlico Plumbers employees who lived in the area brought the paper in for Charlie to read. The boss, who has appeared on Channel 4’s The Secret Millionaire, was impressed and hired Gibbs as a van driver. Pimlico’s have in the past employed even older staff, Buster Martin, who sadly passed away in April, was Britain’s oldest employee at 104.

Now Pimlico Plumbers is on the search for classic ‘Crappers’ and plumbing icons for its new museum featuring bathrooms from the past 150 years; Victorian toilets, art-deco basins from the 1930s and of course Thomas Crapper originals.

Charlie Mullins whose client list includes Harry Hill, Jack Dee and Helena Bonham Carter is always keen to promote his trade, claims that plumbing is the world’s second oldest profession and the skills and innovations of the industry have touched everyone’s lives. His new museum showcases a range of quirky exhibits that demonstrate the ingenuity of pluming engineers and bring back memories for visitors.

Entry to the museum in Sail Street is free with a collection box for nominated charities and it has to be near the top of London’s most quirky museums.