Rich men’s basements

Recently I was taking a couple home after they had been to the theatre.

They were the quiet, courteous generation that grew up in the 1930s and 40s, expensively well dressed in a subdued way rather than the vulgar and scruffy apparel favoured by the rich today.

After a short conversation about their theatre visit, I was directed to their home in Belgravia.

[T]ravelling down Chester Row my customers directed me to stop just before a house shrouded in builder’s hoardings and with a large skip outside in the road. “I see your neighbour is having some work done”, I remarked when we had stopped.

While his wife said goodbye and thanking me as she walked towards her front door, her husband approached my driver’s window to pay, upon which he metamorphosised from a genial gentleman to Victor Meldrew. “These houses weren’t built with deep foundations, they are digging under the house and we can hear their work all day, the noise is driving my wife made and I’m just waiting for my house to subside, cracks have already appeared in our walls”

A sad fact is that a new generation is moving to Belgravia nowadays and many are doubling the size and value of their houses by burrowing underground.

Now my customer’s predictions would seem prophetic, for while adding an underground cinema and a gym to a perfectly respectable late Georgian house in Chester Row a skip has fallen into a hole in the road outside the house, spewing water out of the hole and flooding the neighbouring properties in the process.

Why would you spend the sum of a respectable semi, to live underground if not for a vast profit? Who would want to live underground we’re not moles. Already predictably there is the threat of legal action as the conversion was originally opposed by most of the road’s residents.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but a little research of Belgravia’s history might have given the developers cause for concern.

The land owned by Lord Grosvenor was originally marshy land with the River Westbourne running through it. In the 1820s Thomas Cubitt was granted the right to develop the houses that we see today. The nomenclature ‘Speculative Builder’ given to the developer should tell you everything you need to know about Cubitt’s Belgravia. Built for a quick profit, much like today’s developers, they would not have been expected to last nearly 200 years. The lax building regulations of the day almost certainly precluded the insistence of adequate foundations, load bearing joists and cavity walls.

When building a single story kitchen extension my borough planners wanted me to dig three metre footings, enough to support St. Pauls Cathedral, so why cannot the same be applied in conservation areas?

A neighbour commenting summed it up perfectly:

This entire fiasco represents a massive collective failure for all involved in designing, approving and attempting to build overly ambitious, vulgar additions to listed buildings in a conservation area.

How much misery do residents have to endure before we learn to properly balance long term interest against reckless pursuit of short-term profit?


Sartorial Entertainment

Beau Brummel

In an age when we have many competing demands on how we can spend our leisure time, it is hard for use to imagine a world were entertainment could be had in watching a man get dressed.

In early nineteenth century London the rich with time on their hands – the poor of course were working every hour God sent them – would take themselves off to the Mayfair home of George ‘Beau’ Brummell.

Not rich, talented or blessed with brains, he just dressed better than anyone ever had before or since; not dressed more colourfully or extravagantly as many suppose, but simply with more care, in fact his apparel was confined almost entirely to three plain colours: white, buff and blue-black.

[H]e was born in 1778 in Downing Street, his father being an adviser to the Prime Minister of the day, Lord North. After an education at Eton and Oxford he took up a position in the Prince of Wales’ regiment, the 10th Hussars. Never tested in battle his function essentially was to look good in uniform alongside the Prince at formal gatherings.

One of London’s more improbably rituals resulted from Beau’s friendship and patronage of the Prince, where a procession of grown men of great eminence would arrive at his home each afternoon to watch him – well dress.

The Prince of Wales, three dukes, a marquis, two earls and the playwright Richard Sheridan would sit in respectful silence and amazement as he had a daily bath in hot water – almost unheard of act the time – and from time to time milk was added to the water, setting a new fashion for London.

When the miserly and withered Marquess of Queensbury started taking milk baths, sales of milk plummeted as it was rumoured he returned the milk for resale after immersing his decrepit body into this mixture.

Beau would spend hours getting his apparel just right. A visitor, arriving at his home to find the floor strewn with cravats asked Robinson, his long-suffering valet, what was going on. “Those,” Robinson sighed “are our failures”. It was quite normal during the day to get through three shirts, two pairs of trousers, four or five cravats, two waistcoats, several pairs of stockings and a number of handkerchiefs.

Alas he was not as studious with his comments as with his apparel. After a falling out with the Prince of Wales who later snubbed him at a social occasion (the Prince by now was obese and referred to as the Prince of Whales a behind his back), Beau made what must be one of the most famously ill-advised remarks in social history, “Who’s your fat friend”? he asked of the Prince’s companion.

Ostracised by London’s elite he fled to France to escape his debtors and lived in poverty for 25 years but always looking restrained and immaculate for a pauper.

Foyle’s Queue


For 100-odd years Foyle’s the eponymous bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road employed a system of book purchase that only served – if that is the correct word- to waste customers time and add another two layers of bureaucracy to the simple act of purchasing an item.

Once you’d selected the book you wanted, you had to queue to hand it to an assistant, who would put your book into a bag, place the bag under the counter and give you a chit to take to the cashier.

Next you’d have to queue at the cashier’s kiosk, where after paying you’d be given a receipt to take back to the first assistant.

Then you’d have to queue a third time to hand over your receipt and collect your book, simply because sales staff were not allowed to handle cash.

Foyle’s proprietor Christina Foyle, daughter of founder William, allowed the shop to stagnate, with little investment and poorly paid staff that could be fired on a whim.

[S]he also refused to install any modern conveniences such as electronic tills or calculators; nor would orders be taken by phone. Equally mystifying to customers was a shelving arrangement that categorized books by publisher, rather than by topic or author. In the 1980s, rival bookshop, Dillons, placed an advertisement saying “Foyled again? Try Dillons” in a bus shelter opposite Foyle’s. After the death of Christina Foyle in 1999 and the passing of control to her nephew Christopher Foyle, he has now brought the bookshop into the 21st century and in the last 10 years Foyle’s have been the recipient of many awards.

Continuing this fine tradition of multi-layer bureaucracy and distrust of their customers the national census is due to take place on 27th March 2011 but it could be the last of its kind.

The census as we would understand it has been conducted every 10 years since 1801, apart from during World War II, and it has proved to be a valuable resource for historians, genealogists and planners. But now the government is examining other ways of measuring population and other statistics than the compulsory survey of all homes every 10 years.

The 2001 census was the first year in which the government asked about religion and perhaps because this was seen as too intrusive 390,000 people entered their religion as Jedi, hardly surprising after the Nazi occupation and genocide of minority religions in Europe, they just felt it was none of the authorities business.

Next year’s census, sent to every household, will cost an estimated £482 million and again the bureaucrats are going way beyond what is reasonable to ask in a survey. They will ask for detailed information including nationality, religious faith and marital status, including new ones about citizenship and how well people can speak English? . . . Very well, well, not well or not at all. They will demand to know the date overseas nationals have entered the UK and the length of time they intend to stay. Citizens will no longer be asked if they have access to a bath or shower but will be asked how many bedrooms their property has and types of central heating in homes. According to a specimen 2011 census on the Office for National Statistics website, they will also ask about ‘same sex civil partnership status’ for the first time. The specimen census also asks ‘how would you describe your national identity?’ offering English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, British or ‘other’, with space to write in. The section on ethnic groups has also been expanded from 2001, with separate categories for ‘Gypsy or Irish Traveller’ and ‘Arab’ for the first time.

Those who do not complete the census risk being prosecuted.

Not trusting our honesty and finding that many people only partially fill in the census or do not return the form, the Government have said it was ‘examining’ whether changes could be made but no decision had yet been reached.

One suggestion is that in future the bureaucrats could gather the data from records held by the Post Office, local government and credit checking agencies – thought to be more effective- and of course far more intrusive.

The Office for National Statistics claims to have carried out extensive consultations and testing over a number of years to ensure that the questions are justified, both in terms of the need for the information and public acceptability. Well, we shall see next year, I predict there will again be protests about the degree of intrusion into our daily lives.

Oranges and Lemons

Standing in the shadow of the East London Mosque in a modest Grand II listed premises on Whitechapel Road is Britain’s oldest manufacturer. As the mosque calls out for worshippers to attend their daily prayers this small factory continues to produce the bells used to call Christians to their place of worship, just as it has done since 1583.

The Church Bell Foundry to give it its formal name was established even earlier in 1570, although a firm link predates even this to 1420 when a Richard Chamberlain was known as a ‘bell-founder of Aldgate’.

[W]hen most heavy industry has left London this remarkable factory is still a family-owned and run company. Having produced some of the world’s great bells including Big Ben, America’s Liberty Bell and bells for what was at the time Russia’s new capital St. Petersburg and even today over 80 per cent of production is making church bells and associated accessories.

The premises date from 1670, just four years after the Great Fire of London, although this eastern end of the City was untouched by the conflagration. It is built on the site of an inn called the Artichoke whose cellars survive and are still used by the foundry today.

The building’s entrance is through a replica bell frame of the company most famous bell, needing 10.5 tons of molten copper mixed with 3 tons of tin “Big Ben” is still the largest bell ever made in London.

big-ben-casting-standard Originally the order for the 16-ton bell was given to another bell foundry; Warners of Cripplegate at their Norton factory near Stockton-on-Tees who cast the new bell in August 1856. It was transported by rail and sea to London, and on arrival at the Port of London, it was placed on a carriage and pulled across Westminster Bridge by 16 white horses. The bell was hung in New Palace Yard and it was tested each day until 17th October 1857 when a 4 foot crack appeared, but no-one would accept the blame. Theories included the composition of the bell’s metal or its dimensions. Warners blamed Edmund Denison, an abrasive lawyer who had designed the clock’s mechanism for insisting on increasing the hammer’s weight from 355kg to 660kg. Warners asked too high a price to break up and recast the bell so George Mears at the Whitechapel Foundry was appointed.

The bell was melted down and recast successfully by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry on 10th April 1858, and when finished it took 16 horses the best part of a day to haul the gigantic bell from Whitechapel to Parliament Square.

There are two theories about the origins of the name ‘Big Ben’: Around the time the clock was due to be completed, the prize fighter and publican Ben Caunt went 60 rounds with the best bare-knuckle boxer in the country, Nat Langham. The bout was declared a draw but it made both men national heroes. Ben Caunt was a huge man and one story has it that the great bell was named after him. The other story attributes the name to Benjamin Hall, the chief commissioner of works, who was addressing the House on the subject of a name for the new bell tower when, to great laughter, someone shouted ‘Call it Big Ben!’, but no record is to be found in Hansard of this remark.

When the time came to install the bell although this bell was 2.5 tonnes lighter than the first, its dimensions meant it was too large to fit up the Clock Tower’s shaft vertically so Big Ben was turned on its side and winched up. It took 30 hours to winch the bell to the belfry in October 1858. The four quarter bells, which chime on the quarter hour, were already in place.

Big Ben rang out on 11 July 1859 but its success was short-lived. In September 1859, the new bell also cracked and Big Ben was silent for four years. During this time, the hour was struck on the fourth quarter bell.

In 1863, a solution was found to Big Ben’s silence by Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal. Big Ben was turned by a quarter turn so the hammer struck a different spot; the hammer was replaced by a lighter version; and a small square was cut into the bell to prevent the crack from spreading

The total cost of making the clock and bells and installing them in the Clock Tower reached £22,000.

For more information about the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and details of the factory tours they offer visit their comprehensive site.

Parliamentary copyright of the depiction of Big Ben are reproduced with the permission of Parliament. Its incorporation on CabbieBlog does not infer authorisation for re-use of the image, nor should you adapt, alter or manipulate the image. You may not use the image so as to bring Parliament into disrepute or use it in a deliberately misleading context.

Logistics sorted


[T]here was a time when I would describe myself as a Licensed London Black Cab Driver, but for anyone now who drives for a living a little creative re-branding is the order of the day.

‘Logistics’, the word first entered our lexicon in 1982 when the armed forces described the task of transporting a battleground, with weapons, food, and all the paraphernalia of war half way round the world and drop them on two small remote islands in the middle of nowhere. Now anyone who delivers ‘stuff’ in a van provides a logistics solution.

United Parcel Service advertises itself as ‘why logistics is the most powerful force in business today – and why you should understand it.’ With a photograph of volcano erupting for dramatic effect, it warms (sorry out that) to its subject by asking the question “What is logistics”? I always thought it was a man in a van going from A to B, but apparently UPS claims ‘Logistics is the art and science of getting things exactly when they need to be there’.

Now I mention this is passing for recently I was expecting a delivery from one of UPS’s competitors and twice when they arrived at my house I managed to be out.

A card informed me that I could collect my parcel from their depot, but first I had to make an appointment. These guys were really serious about providing a logistical solution. Only 35 minutes were spent on the phone waiting to make my appointment, while listening to the solutions that this company provided.

Next day, armed with my passport and utility bill for identification I drove 15 miles (unlike Royal Mail they don’t have a depot in every town) and here on arrival I rang the bell three times before someone appeared behind the counter.

Now at this point I would ask you to suspend your disbelief for it took 40 minutes of logistics to locate my parcel within their depot, even though they knew I was coming. A mumbled apology with the excuse that the parcel was in the wrong place and a check of my proffered ID and a signature enabled me to drive away with my goods.

Well that doesn’t sound much like science, for that needs quantifiable evidence; it’s not much like art, for I can’t imagine a green and yellow van, with a driver being exhibited in the engine room of Tate Modern.

And come to think of it the logistics side is pretty thin on the ground.

I’ll tell you what it does sound like though: Loading stuff into a van, driving it around London, and then unloading it somewhere else and sometimes the customer getting his delivery delivered or just getting them to do the job themselves.

I’ve got to go there is a man in my cab with the logistics problem of getting from his office to the station, and I might just have the solution . . .

Taxi Talk Without Tipping

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