Solid evidence indeed

In an article in this month’s Railway Magazine Nick Brodrick looks at the Q class 0-6-0 locomotives designed by Richard Maunsell for the Southern Railway in the mid-1930s. In particular he discusses the one member of the class, no. 30541, which has survived in preservation. This sustained war damage in 1942 when a bomb exploded ahead of it on the track it was travelling along in Surrey. The damage to the track caused the locomotive to de-rail, and a fragment of the bomb pierced its firebox. Because of wartime conditions, instead of a full repair

the shrapnel “wounds” were plated over, and the last of these surviving patches on the backplate was only finally cut out, and a new piece welded in, during its latest preservation-era overhaul.

It is surely good that a proper repair was eventually done; in peacetime damage of that order would naturally have been fully repaired. But was something not also lost when the evidence of the locomotive’s turbulent history constituted by these steel plates was removed, especially as it had borne that evidence for decades? Here was an aspect of the record, solid evidence in both senses of the word.

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Did physical exertion kill a living memory?

In September I visited Gloucester cathedral and, after seeing most of the building with great delight, took the day’s last tour of the crypt. As part of his nineteenth-century restoration of the cathedral Sir George Gilbert Scott designed a red granite font which was installed in 1878. This font was moved to the crypt in 1986, when a Norman lead font was acquired. Our guide said that she had no idea how the solid stone structure was moved, down the narrow stairways and passages which would preclude the use of machinery. Now it is understandable that we do not know exactly how, say, the lantern at Ely cathedral was built after nearly seven hundred years have passed. But when it is still not quite thirty years since Scott’s font was moved, someone must know; someone must remember. Our guide had made it her business to be well informed, so the question is whether a record exists. Extraordinary that the matter is apparently a mystery, but it shows that even contemporary events, with today’s procedures and mechanisms for documenting them, may cause uncertainty as to facts as well as interpretation in future chroniclers.

If a record exists it should be brought into the currency of everyday discussion of the cathedral. Since oral testimony cannot last for ever, a record obviously should have been made if it wasn’t. And for the same reason, if there is no original written record oral testimony should be collected and preserved now.

The Troxy is some proxy

Another highlight of my year was the reopening concert on August 22 of the Trocadero Wurlitzer. This, the largest Wurlitzer cinema organ ever imported into Europe, was originally installed in the Trocadero cinema at the Elephant and Castle, where the organist for some years was Quentin Maclean, one of the two or three finest of all British cinema organists. The Trocadero was pulled down in 1963 when the district was redeveloped (look out of the window of your Thameslink train and weep…) but the organ was saved by the Cinema Organ Society, and after some years sounding at South Bank University, and some years of silence in store has now been installed in the Troxy, Stepney.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

In short, as I have written elsewhere:

Since the Trocadero
Has long since been reduced to zero,
The Troxy
Must act as its proxy.

But what a proxy. John Abson and his team of volunteers who have restored, reinstalled and voiced the organ by devoting long hours of spare time over several years have done a superb job which I cannot possibly praise highly enough, and two fine but contrasting organists, Richard Hills and Robert Wolfe, demonstrated by their technique and musicianship the scale of the achievement.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

The Troxy itself, now converted into a concert hall and conference centre, was like the Trocadero one of London’s super-cinemas. Since few of these are left the Troxy, with its decoration intact, is itself an archive, preserving the sensation of taking part in communal mass entertainment in the days before television.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA The sheer size impresses – and the auditorium was well-filled – but just because of the size the astonishingly clear acoustic is a pleasurable shock. At one point the microphone through which Richard Hills was announcing his items failed; he used his unamplified voice instead but was still clearly audible to me in one of the further-flung rows on the balcony. The exuberance of the decoration testifies to the exuberance of the mind which created it. I like to think of the effect of both scale and spectacle on those who appreciated it in its heyday as a cinema. What leap of mind and spirit there must have been when those used to their local fleapit came here.  There could be no more fitting home for the Trocadero Wurlitzer: a home of the kind, and on the scale, it was designed for.

I believe that such undertakings as the restoration of old cinema organs are important political acts. Against the bland, the corporate and the over-familiar they strike a blow for the unusual and the idiosyncratic, for the small-scale and local, and for the volunteer and the enthusiast. And they not only preserve a corner of existence which might have disappeared but bring it regularly to life for our delectation.

In terms of unconventional history

As I look back at some of the things I have done this year now ending, I am struck by their implications for historiography.

One of those things was a journey through the Dudley canal tunnel. These take place regularly and are organised by the Dudley Canal Trust. The Dudley Canal Trust has been with us since the 1960s, and was formed with the aim of restoring the then-disused tunnel. I have before me a booklet published to commemorate the reopening of the tunnel on 21 April 1973, an occasion dubbed TRAD (Tunnel Reopening at Dudley) Weekend. Derek A. Gittings, who contributes the booklet’s account of the restoration writes that when commercial traffic through the tunnel ceased “In terms of conventional history, Dudley Tunnel had spanned the years between the French Revolution and the Second World War.” Why should events like these be the markers of conventional history? The tunnel’s own history is fascinating enough.

What is more, TRAD itself is now part of history. In 1944 Parliament had declared many more or less disused waterways officially abandoned. Waterway enthusiasts nonetheless kept the faith that the system would flower again for pleasure cruising and that many of the abandoned canals could be restored. Dudley, though, was something else. Official abandonment did not come until 1962; little more than a decade later the Dudley canal and tunnel were reopened. This was thanks to the combining of determined voluntary effort, by cavers as well as waterways enthusiasts, with the support of local government and of commerce so that, for example, heavy plant and building materials could be afforded. This was an early example of a collaboration that has since become common: for example in the end-to-end restoration of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and Standedge Tunnel. It is now recognised that restored and flourishing canals are not merely somebody’s hobby but make for pleasant and lively communities and contribute hugely to local economies.

The commemorative booklet, produced mainly as a souvenir, is now a historical document. The black and white photographs; the telephone numbers quoted in a boat-hire company’s advertisement (“Shardlow 732”); that the Mayor of Dudley, who with the Chairman of the British Waterways Board performed the opening ceremony, was an Alderman (the office was abolished the following year) – all show that 1973 was a long time ago. And the whole story shows that the particular and the local can be epoch-making.

The tunnel itself is perhaps the most ethereal structure on the entire inland waterway system. Some of it is lined with brick,SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

some, post-restoration, with concrete,SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA and some is bored through bare rock.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAAnd that rock is often fascinating.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

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A transition from rock to brick

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A transition from concrete to rock

It is not simply a tunnel but has also numerous branch tunnelsSAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA and old mine workings.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA It is no wonder that cavers as well as canal enthusiasts valued it. Go and see for yourself. SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA