“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


Brush up your Shakespeare

The floods around Christmas damaged a number of railway lines, among them the South Eastern Railway’s main line at Shakespeare Beach, between Folkestone and Dover. The March issue of the Railway Magazine reports that Network Rail has carefully investigated the construction of the sea wall in planning the repairs to the line. The report, judging by its style, was compiled from a Network Rail press release: Network Rail has had to turn archaeologist… Steve Kilby, senior programme manager for Network Rail, said…”. “The company”, reports the RM, “is having to take this approach because of an absence of any significant maintenance records from the Southern Railway era (1923-1947).” They have carried out a laser survey, and dug trenches and bore holes. “Not only that,” the report continues,

but they have also been spending time in local newspaper archives to try and find any useful information.

They have discovered that the railway here was originally carried on wooden trestles above the beach, but in 1927 the Southern Railway built the current sea wall alongside it. Thousands of tonnes of chalk were then deposited around the viaduct to encase it; the railway being relaid across the top.

Now Edwin Course, in The Railways of Southern England: The Main Lines (1973) writes: “the east end of Shakespeare Cliff Tunnel led out on to the top of the beach, which the railway followed on a wooden trestle viaduct. In 1927, as part of the Southern Railway’s improvements for continental traffic, this was replaced by an embankment supported on the seaward side by a concrete retaining wall.” And C. F. Dendy Marshall’s 1937 History of the Southern Railway (in Roger Kidner’s revised edition of 1963) quotes the Board of Trade’s inspecting officer in 1844, “the two short portions of the railway formed along the beach… have been protected… [at Shakespeare Beach] by a strong timber viaduct”, and adds, “The timber bridge survived until 1927… The line is now carried on an embankment behind a concrete wall.”

I am very glad that Network Rail’s staff used archives in their work. It is likely that in consulting old newspapers they went beyond the bare facts and learned something of the context and historical detail of the times of the railway’s construction and of its reconstruction, which is illuminating in itself. But the essence of the story – the line‘s structure where it runs along the beach – was not their discovery. (Edwin Course, who in his preliminaries mentions having used Dover public library, surely consulted some of the same papers.)

I hope Network Rail’s staff have acquired a taste for archives and their possibilities. But it is a pity they presented as an original discovery something they could have got from a secondary source – and that the Railway Magazine swallowed their press release whole. The Railway Magazine, the oldest publication of its kind, has long been a journal of record, but in this case PR sadly seems to have smothered scholarship.

Over park, over pale

I remarked in a previous post that the urban park is a distinctive form of landscape. What I have to discuss here is a very good example of this, but one which also shows that we do not always value the urban park for what it is.

Waddon Ponds is a small park near Croydon. It was until recently the point where the River Wandle first became visible; now at nearby Wandle Park upstream, where the river was chanelled through an underground pipe in the mid 1960s, it has once again been revealed. Still, the breadth of the ponds at Waddon is a stirring sight.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAIt is here that we first have the sense of a watercourse that will influence a whole district. The park once could not have been more of an urban park, and to some extent this is still so. The lawns,SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA the flowerbeds, the shrubs,SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAthe railings,SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAthe surrounding housesSAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA – all add up to an example of the gardener’s art which is both a resource for, and a dramatic foil to a densely populated district – and which could not reside anywhere but such a district.

Recent work on the park, however, has deliberately moved away from this characteristic scene. Notices at the park entrances tell us that:

Waddon Ponds is one of the few places in Croydon where you can see the River Wandle above ground. With its crystal-clear water it’s a much needed peaceful haven in the town centre.

Work is currently taking place to make the ponds more natural for the benefit of birds, amphibians and insects.

This work seems to have consisted mainly in planting reeds in the river and in the use of rough-cut timber to train them.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

Why is there this impulse to turn everything into a semblance of country? Compare this with the marketing of the suburban house between the world wars as a country retreat. This practice has been conventionally criticised on the ground that suburban development turned to town the very countryside that was supposed to be its attraction. Not quite: the suburb is a distinctive landscape too, different from countryside or town. It is worth looking at, and pleasant to exist in, for its own qualities. (And wildlife of a distinctive kind can look after itself there too.)

A park such as Waddon Ponds is part of the suburban landscape. I do not think the alterations at Waddon have gone too far; but the attitude behind them carries the danger of smothering a distinctive and subtle savour which has never had its due – though it has remained popular with citizens.

Enjoyable walk…

I have now embarked on the London Loop. Last weekend I walked the section between Jubilee Park and West Wickham, in the Kentish suburbs, and crossed Keston Common. On a noticeboard there was a programme of monthly winter walks organised by the Friends of Keston Common. These alternated between two kinds, “Enjoyable Walk” and “History Walk”. Surely this doesn’t mean that the History Walks…?

The concrete, asphalt, gravel and green turf beneath my feet

I have recently completed the Capital Ring. If you have not met it, the Capital Ring is a 78 mile circular walk around London. Its London is mostly that of the inner suburbs, although it ventures out as far as Harrow on the Hill; its character is perhaps summarised by the position of its two river crossings, at Richmond and Woolwich. Hazlitt famously encapsulated the delights of walking:

Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner – and then to thinking!

But he went on:

When I am in the country, I wish to vegetate like the country… I go out of town in order to forget the town and all that is in it.

What the Capital Ring shows is that green turf is not necessary to the thinking that a walk stimulates, nor do we necessarily want to forget the town. The designers of the Capital Ring have made an effort to include as much green as possible, but the scene is in fact a matrix of green and buildings in constantly shifting juxtapositions and proportions; a scene both asymmetrical and fluid whose constant movement, which the built-up parts emphasise, is itself conducive to thought – for my money more so than the countryside. It is a long time since I enjoyed a walk so much and so consistently. Every step I took exhilarated me, even on the one day (out of six) when it never stopped raining.

Rather than forgetting the town, let alone all that is in it, the Capital Ring gives us a different perspective on it. These are residential districts, but firmly, sometimes grittily, urban; unlike the outer suburbs they are not failed attempts at a country retreat (which is not to disparage the outer suburbs, which have become a landscape in their own right). And these districts are very definitely neighbourhoods, with a focus and an independent life. I would advise any new visitor to London to walk at least a section of the Capital Ring. It gives a better view of London life than the round of the traditional tourist sites can. It is indeed a record of what London is.

To link the various districts that the Ring does induces new connections both on the ground and in the mind. Walking from Highgate to Stoke Newington, for example, I was illogically surprised that these two places are so close (the map should have told me) but their different characters had made them seem physically far apart too. Physical and mental boundaries, I feel, should be permeable and somewhat ill-defined, so that we can relatively easily move from the centre of one thing to the centre of something else essentially different, and so make unexpected connections. Many people who live in the metropolis will travel to nearby countryside to walk; I once walked from Croydon to Colley Hill, which must be much less common, and the surprise that I could do that added to the pleasure of moving from one landscape to another, sharply contrasting one when that contrast was so gradually achieved.

We should, too, enjoy the urban landscape for its own delights. The Capital Ring does this. Much of even its green stretches consists of urban park, also a distinctive form of landscape. But contrast the guide book to the Ring by Colin Saunders with the guide book to the London Loop by David Sharp and Colin Saunders. The London Loop is another circular walk, this one around the edge of Greater London and therefore including much genuine country. But the authors of the Loop guide think it necessary to say, “there are inevitably some more urban stretches where you may wish to grit your teeth and think of the many pleasures to come.” Why? I would expect a walk around even the edge of the metropolis to mingle suburb and country, to its greater enjoyment. The city, as Brigid Brophy observed, is “one of the cardinally simple brilliant inventions, like currency”. It is also beautiful, even at its most everyday.

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.

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.