Piggeries and Potteries

They come in colours ranging from red, purple, brown and various shades of yellow and can be laid in soldier, sailor, stretcher, English, Flemish, header and rowlock bonds there must be a dozen ways to lay them.

With their unrefined pock-marks and crinkled
irregular contours, dappled grey by smog they form the landscape of Georgian London. Because they were handmade no two are the same.

[C]heap to produce using London’s vast clay resources, these iconic bricks were produced by craftsmen who lived in poverty to provide wealthy private developers with the materials needed to expand London to an astonishing rate.

Brick Lane, Spitalfields; Pottery Lane, Notting Dale; Kiln Place, Gospel Oak all bear testament to the manufacture of the ubiquitous London Brick.

London clay is a compact anaerobic material ideal for brick making. Once dug the clay was mixed with water and cinders, both in plentiful supplies in Victorian London, it was a perfect solution for house building using materials readily available. The ash imbued the brick with porous pits that allowed for water drainage, making it well suited for London’s weather.

Between six and eight men would carry out the entire process, digging the clay, mixing it and pushing the mixture into a brick mould, once dried on-site kilns would fire the bricks hard. Incredibly a single gang of labourers could produce a million bricks in an annual summer season sufficient to build 30 houses. Once the area was developed the kiln was dismantled, the brickfield would be levelled and the whole operation would migrate elsewhere.

Bottle kiln I know of only one kiln left in London dating from about 1824 in Walmer Road. In the area once called the Piggeries and Potteries, known today as Notting Dale it belies the truth that once it was a notorious slum. Pig-keepers who were forced from Tottenham Court Road moved to this now salubrious area. The community expanded, but with little sanitation or fresh water, the pig owners shared the hovels with their animals. With the arrival of the brick-makers ‘notorious types’ known for their ‘riotous living’ and described as being ‘no wiser than the clay they worked on’, it wasn’t long before rubbish and effluent ended up in the holes where the clay had been dug. One stagnant pool was so big it was known as ‘the ocean’.

In 1849 a report described most houses as ‘merely hovels in a ruinous condition’ and ‘filthy in the extreme’. A medical officer reported that it was ‘one of the most deplorable spots, not only in Kensington, but in the whole metropolis’. Life expectancy was just 11 years 7 months compared with the London average of 37.

With the coming of the railways, by the 1840s London bricks had lost their domination and vernacular architecture died. The yellow hues of the London stock were abandoned, and pre-fabricated bricks rolled in from the Midlands, bringing in the bright red stock we recognise today.

Photo: Old Kiln, Notting Hill. Robin Webster (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Leaning Tower of Rotherhithe

If you know where to look London still has evidence that once it was a great maritime port.

Anne-Marie Nankivell author of The Londonphile writes in this Guest Post, not of the iconic cranes standing unused outside the expensive flats in Docklands, but of a building that has survived against all the odds even though it has a list when all its neighbours were demolished.

[I]t stands in supreme isolation, alone along this little stretch of the river, like a mouth with but a single tooth. How many travellers along the Thames must have wondered about this funny, narrow little building in Rotherhithe? In fact, the Leaning Tower of Rotherhithe – as it is apparently known locally – was one of several buildings in the area owned by Braithwaite & Dean, a barge company. They were a lighterage firm – lighters being flat-bottomed barges – and their lightermen moved goods between ships and quays (not to be confused with watermen, who carried passengers). This building was their office – and already tilting back in those days – where lightermen would pull up in their boats to collect their wages.

Leaning Tower - Rotherhithe-2Once this whole stretch of the riverside was covered with buildings, they mostly related to shipping, with a few public houses thrown in for good measure. You can see a Museum of London photograph of the area (commissioned by the Port of London Authority as part of their ten-mile panoramic documentation of the river) from 1937 here. The buildings to the west of our leaning tower were purchased in 1939 by Bermondsey Council, who planned to demolish them to build a garden. The Blitz then finished off any work that they had begun to this end.

Leaning Tower - Rotherhithe-3To the east of the building stood what has been described as ‘a once absurdly picturesque row of largely wooden tenements…seedy in the extreme but vibrantly populated in the 1950s by a bohemian set of artists and writers’. Lord Snowdon lived along this row in a former coal store and is said to have met with Princess Margaret here, as well as hosting celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward (who entertained him on the piano in his studio flat). In around 1960 he lent his room to John Betjeman (as you do) when his house burnt down.

Betjeman described his time here as ‘the most restful few months I had ever spent in London’, during which he enjoyed the ‘tremendous view’, including that of ‘the wharves and Georgian brick buildings of Wapping’ across the way. He moved the bed to the river-side of the room, going ‘to sleep to the solacing sounds of water’. At low tide he would listen to the sound of the waves rippling over the pebbles below, and described how at high tide ‘after a tug had passed the water made a plopping sound right against my bedroom wall as thought I were in a ship’s hold’. Until the Thames Barrier was built this whole area was of course subject to the risk of flooding; Braithwaite & Dean’s offices were flooded in 1953.

Leaning Tower - Rotherhithe-4 The remains of Edward III’s manor house nearby

Despite a campaign by both Betjeman and Snowdon, the rather romantic-sounding row of buildings to the east was also pulled down by the local council after being condemned as a health hazard during the 1960s. It’s not known exactly why this particular structure was allowed to remain. It is not of any particular architectural value, though perhaps it was its brickwork that saved it, as many of the other buildings were wooden so arguably less sound structures. The King’s Stairs Gardens were then created here, and contain the remains of what is thought to be King Edward III’s manor house, circa 1353, uncovered by a Museum of London dig in the 1980s. Braithwaite & Dean stayed on in the leaning tower until the early 1990s, and it is now a (very) private residence.

Leaning Tower - Rotherhithe-5

The house is located at the very end of Fulford Street (you can’t miss it!), roughly equidistant between Bermondsey tube station and Rotherhithe Overground station. The photograph taken from across the river was shot (with a zoom lens) from Wapping’s Waterside Gardens.

Leaning Tower - Rotherhithe-6 Leaning Tower - Rotherhithe-7 Note from CabbieBlog: To get some perspective of how the riverside looked in its heyday this picture taken in 1937 shows Braithwaite & Dean with properties on either side used by lighterage and barge-building firms. Their appearance with steep-pitched mansard roofs with pantiles above would indicate 17th century construction. A hithe in Old English was a landing-place on a river, while Rother was the old term for oxen. So this was the river port for landing cattle.

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This wonderful example of our maritime past is available to rent. Now converted into luxury accommodation it boasts of a one bedroom private penthouse, sleeping six with stunning views of Tower Bridge directly on the river [see above]. Located one mile from Tower Bridge along the Jubilee Thames path and an easy commute from Gatwick and to the city. Your may contact Helena here to make a booking.

The London Grill: Peter Watts

We challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and we don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will face the same questions that range from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out just what Londoners really think about their city. The questions might be the same but the answers vary wildly.

Peter Watts

[I] am a London journalist and blogger. From 2005 to 2010 I worked at Time Out as their features writer, which allowed me to explore my fascination with London. In that time, I really got to see the city, going everywhere from beneath the streets in the old Fleet River to the top of a Hackney church tower to interview Iain Sinclair. I still write regularly about London for various publications, and blog about the city at www.greatwen.com.

What’s your secret London tip?
This might not be popular on a black cab website, but walk everywhere. It’s the best way to see those parts of London between main roads and tube stations, which is where most of the really fascinating London treasures are to be found, like the Russian tank in Elephant or the spoons of Clerkenwell.

What’s your secret London place?
So many choices but Bookmongers second-hand bookshop in Brixton is probably my favourite spot to spend an hour or two at the moment. Great book, lovely dog and always a decent soundtrack.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?
House prices and transport fares.

What’s your favourite building?
Today, All Saints church on Margaret Street north of Oxford Street – it looks as if it has been plonked into its space by a giant hand from above. I am not religious, but I do love London’s churches. I also adore Senate House.

What’s your most hated building?
I’ve never liked No 1 Poultry.

What’s the best view in London?
People go on about Waterloo Bridge, but I’ve always enjoyed the view from Vauxhall Bridge, which gives a nice panorama of the Thames from further west. Height-wise, I’ve spent many happy afternoons on Primrose Hill admiring the vista. You also get a surprisingly good view from the dentistry department of Guy’s Hospital, which is on the 22nd floor near London Bridge.

What’s your personal London landmark?
Whenever I return to London on the train from the north, I always get a little thrill when I see the first tube train on a parallel track – it’s like a ‘welcome home’ sign. I also have a soft spot for the North Stand at Stamford Bridge and the canal at Lisson Grove.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
Film: Performance and An American Werewolf In London.
Book (fiction): Christy Malry’s own Double Entry by BS Johnson and King Dido by Alexander Baron.
Book (non-fiction): London Encyclopedia (ed Christopher Hibbert) and Pleasures of London by Felix Barker and Peter Jackson.
Documentary: Primitive London (DVD on BFI Flipside).

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
Bradley’s Spanish Bar in Hanway Street was a favourite haunt for many years. Upstairs on Acre Lane in Brixton is a great, little-known French restaurant.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
Pancakes for breakfast at the Lido Cafe in Brockwell Park; then to a museum or gallery (any will do); a walk through somewhere like the City, Clerkenwell, Borough or Holborn; then to Hampstead Heath or Richmond Park for a picnic lunch and a wander. Back to town for dinner somewhere expensive, and then a whiskey in a cosy mews pub.

This ‘Grill’ was first posted on the Radio Taxis blog.

Skeptic Tank

Londoners delight in urban myths: Where is Lord Lucan; Did they buy the right ‘London’ Bridge; How much do cabbies earn.

But one myth is so neat it might actually have a ring of truth – The Pink Russian Tank called Stompie.

On a scrubby triangle of land a stone’s throw from the Bricklayer’s Arms quietly acquiring a patina of graffiti stands a Russian T34 tank.

[R]eputedly the tank was once used to defend Leonid Brezhnev’s social utopia against all odds in the Czechoslovakian Prague Spring students uprising in 1968. Once the vehicle’s useful life squashing protestors was over, in 1995 it was transported to London to feature in a modern day adaption of Richard III.
After Ian McKellen had cried “My Kingdom for a horse” (or in this case “kingdom for a tank”) the T34 tank ended languishing in a scrap dealers yard.

In 1995 for the princely sum of £7,000 the T34 was then brought by colourful character and developer Russell Gray who had lost his battle with Southwark Council to build some flats, not on Bosworth Field but a parcel of wasteland at the junction of Pages Walk and Mandela Way.

Gray bought the tank for his 7-year-old son (who wants Action Man when you can play with a real killing machine) and then successfully obtained planning permission to site a ‘tank’ upon the disputed land.

Folklore has it that Southwark Council assumed ‘tank’ was a vessel that would contain liquid of the septic variety. Gray sited the T34 tank with the barrel aimed resolutely at his nemesis, Southwark Council Offices, and named it Stompie. This was in memory of Stompie Moekatsi an ANC activist killed by Winnie Mandela’s bodyguards in 1988 after they suspected him of being an apartheid government informer, an inspired choice given its location at the end of Mandela Way.

In 2002 Gray was persuaded by artist Aleksandra Mir to have Stompie painted pink, maybe his son, now 14-years-old had grown tired of his toy. The choice of colour was reminiscent of an earlier event.

Pink tank In Prague a Soviet war memorial in the shape of a tank [pictured right] commemorating the liberation of Poland from the Nazis symbolised for the local populace the tanks that were used to quash the student uprising – and Stompie’s finest hour.

Czech sculptor David Cerny painted the Prague monument pink. The Soviets who regarded this as an affront to their masculinity repainted it three days later to green. Ten days passed before political activists repainted it pink. Another green coat was applied by the authorities and that was soon repainted pink. Eventually the government realised they were fighting a losing battle and to save face replaced the tank with a fountain.

Since his pink period Stompie has been painted in a variety of colours including those of a Chicago cab, but now he languishes in a kaleidoscope of graffiti.

Apartheid iconography, cold war museum piece, symbol of a planning dispute, urban joke, movie extra, birthday present, Stompie lies in a forgotten field that is forever Prague. Now if you believe Chris Lawson it is one of London’s 10 quirky places.

“Can I bring my budgie?”

. . . and other bizarre requests made of London Cabbies

Cabbies in London get to see all walks of life. In fact, you never quite know who you’ll get in the back of your cab or how they’ll be behave.

Some passengers ask very little of you as a taxi driver, just to be taken from A to B safely and within good time. However, there are others that are just a little more demanding or at times, outright bizarre.

[L]eading taxi insurance broker, insureTAXI asked 220 London cabbies to reveal the strangest requests they’ve ever got from passengers and they came up with these fantastic tales. From transporting budgies to visiting the crematorium at midnight, these taxi drivers truly went beyond the call of duty.

Can I bring my budgie?
“Had a customer ask me if she could bring her budgie, told her that she could as long as she kept hold of it. Well…she didn’t and when I broke hard for a car that pulled out in front of me the cage went flying. The door flew open and the bird was flying around my car with her daughter screaming her head off!! The customer had to climb in the back to try and catch it.” Steve (St Albans, Hertfordshire)

I need my charger . . . it’s in my car!
“Had a lad ask me to take him on a 40 mile round trip just to collect his phone charger from his car. This was a £50 fare from the bar he had been drinking at! When I explained the cost he insisted that it was important and that he didn’t mind. I’m sure he could have waited to make some other arrangement the next day” Ali (Central London)

Quick! I’m live on air in 9 minutes . . .
“I once was asked to take an MP to a TV broadcast 9 minutes before he was live on air with Paxton on Newsnight! No pressure I thought. We made it with less than a few seconds to spare.” Anonymous (Central London)

I want a divorce!
“I once took a couple of arguing newlyweds home from their night do and the bride asked to be dropped off at her parents as she did not want to go home with her new husband and wanted a divorce.” Tahir (Croydon, East London)

Secret midnight cremation
“Back in the 80s I was asked to take a male and a female, dressed in Gothic fashion to the local Crematorium late at Night. I said, hesitantly, “what actually inside the grounds?!”I mean I’m sorry to ask but why do want to go there this late at night?” “Yes!” she said. Nervously, I drove into the grounds of the Crematorium, shaking, fearing I was going to face some ritualistic ceremony…it was getting darker and darker until suddenly I saw the lights of a house and breathed a great sigh of relief. The female passenger explained they’d been in a time piece having a laugh and been invited to a friends’ party whose house happened to be inside the grounds of the crematorium. The man, whose identity is still a complete mystery, paid the fare, and wrote “thank you for a great ride, love Alf” in my notebook.” Rasheed (Chelmsford, Essex)

Think you can beat these? Follow @insuretaxi on twitter and let them know about the most bizarre request you’ve ever got as a taxi driver (your story might get published on the website!) You’ll also be able to look out for details about the next taxi driver survey and will be kept updated on other industry news.

This is a Guest Post by Tim Crighton director of taxi insurance specialists Taxi-Insure.