If you travel on a Thameslink train between Tooting and Streatham, you can have, from the left-hand windows as you face forward, a rare view of old London.  It can be glimpsed only very briefly, and I would probably never have noticed it if a signal had not one day brought my train to a dead stand with my seat in just the right position, so that I was presented with the scene for as much as two minutes rather than perhaps two seconds.

Between the two stations the train travels at rooftop level for some distance, and there is a stretch where the only buildings to stick up above the houses are churches, some old London board schools – and one modern block.  The houses are initially a mixture of late nineteenth century terraces, inter-war and modern, but then we leave the inter-war and modern houses behind.  Some more modern houses will appear less than a minute later, but for that brief time we see only the late Victorian terraced houses.  A few seconds into that short time parallax causes one of the board schools momentarily to blot out the modern block (on the horizon, left) so that, TV aerials and suchlike apart, we glimpse a roofscape of gables, tiles and chimneys which has barely changed for at least a hundred years – or we would if someone in the foreground had not had a loft conversion done since I first noticed the phenomenon.


“Cast a cold eye on life, on death…” (5)

An occasional series of vignettes of the past, drawn from the archives I use.

Among the archives of the Middlesex County Council is this letter from the painter Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970), well known, amongst other things, for her fascination with the circus, and for her work as a war artist:




14 Dec. 1936

Re Coronation Mug

Dear Sir,

I have been in touch with Mr Fennemore of Messrs Lawleys and am writing to tell you that I am now at work on the necessary changes to bring the Mug design up to date.

My purpose in designing this Mug & that of the Manufacturers producing it is of putting within the reach of any purse, a pottery souvenir which we hoped would have aesthetic value worthy of so important an event as the Coronation of 1937.

Yours faithfully

Laura Knight

On 28 February 1953 Joan Heddle, personal assistant to the Clerk of the County Council, sent this letter to the County Archivist, Colonel William LeHardy, with the following note:

I feel this autograph is worth keeping. I have the sample mug (Edward VIII) in use.


Joan Heddle evidently thought the letter worth keeping because it related to Edward VIII. But she does not mention the letter’s precise significance. Did she, writing sixteen years later and possessing a sample Edward VIII mug (and with yet another coronation in the offing), have that significance at the front of her mind? The significance is that 14 December 1936 was three days after the abdication, so that “the necessary changes to bring the Mug design up to date” seems to be a coy way of referring to the need to create a George VI coronation mug out of the elements of the Edward VIII design. Certainly if we compare the two mugs:


we can see that they are really one design: the decoration – see in particular the very Laura-Knightish touch of the elephant on the right hand side – is I think identical. No artist likes to let material for unrealised designs go to waste, but here time for the alterations must have been so tight that this material could not but be used.

London Metropolitan Archives MCC/CL/CC/1/65