Gold Ball, Cloth of Gold and Golden Window

Stained glass window in Memorial Hospital Presentation of a golden ball by William Fisher Lord of the Manor Plumstead to Queen Elizabeth
Stained glass window in Memorial Hospital: Presentation of a golden ball by William Fisher Lord of the Manor Plumstead to Queen Elizabeth

One of the delights of the Memorial Hospital is the stained glass that decorates some of its corridors and stairways, and the St Nicholas Chapel. I was lucky recently to have the opportunity to take some photographs of the windows, which I have put on the flickr site. Most of the topics depicted in the windows need no explanation; a view of Eltham Palace, Henry VIII’s Great Harry ship which was built at Woolwich and the religious subjects in the chapel. However I found one window, shown above,  puzzling. Who was William Fisher, I pondered, and what was his connection with the area?

Google wasn’t my friend on this occasion, and couldn’t answer my questions. So I headed down to the local history section of the Woolwich library and the trusty W.T. Vincent’s “The Records of the Woolwich District”. Vincent talks about the visit of Queen Bess to Plumstead in July 1573, but names her host as Thomas Fisher rather than William. He describes Thomas Fisher as having been a clerk or bailiff who was employed by Sir Edward Boughton in the management of the king’s estates,  Sir Edward having been granted “the manor and parsonage, tythes &c., within the parishes of and villages of Plumstead, Bostall, Wickham, Welling, Woolwich, Bexley, Lessness, Erith and Yard, alias Crayford” by Henry VIII after the dissolution of the monasteries. Vincent goes on to say of Thomas Fisher:

The old historian, Dugdale, represents Fisher as being:

“As greedy of church lands as other courtiers were,”: observing that “he swallowed divers large morsels, whereof Bishop’s Itchington was one; he made an absolute depopulation of that part called Nether Itchington, where the church stood (which he also pulled down for the building of a manor house in its room); and to perpetuate his memory changed the name of it to Fisher’s Itchington”

He also had a manor house in Plumstead , and much of the land in the parish which had been seized by the late King Henry had apparently come to his share. He was pretty well to do, and on the occasion of the royal visit he presented her Majesty with a ball of gold, with a cover, having a lion standing on the top, crowned and holding the Queen’s arms.

Vincent thought that Fisher’s home was the Old Manor House in Wickham Lane, also known as the Pilgrim’s House or Wolsey’s House.

A Google search for “Fisher’s Itchington” threw up Thomas Fisher MP, who according to wikipedia was MP for Warwickshire and was the person who depopulated Nether Itchington, but no connection with Plumstead or Woolwich is mentioned. So a partial solution to the mystery ….

Gold connections continue in some of the other stained glass windows at the hospital.

The Henry Grace à Dieu, also known as the Great Harry, was the  first ship built at Woolwich Dockyard, and the reason the dockyard  was founded by Henry VIII in 1512.  It was the largest ship of its time, with many innovations such as having two fully armed gun decks, gun ports and 21 of the new heavy bronze cannon. As the window says:  she conveyed Henry to the summit with King Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold and ended her life at the start of Mary’s reign in 1553, when she caught fire and sank at her mooring at Woolwich… “by neckclygens and for lake of over-syth,” according to Henry Machyn.

Stained glass window in Memorial Hospital: The Great Harry
Stained glass window in Memorial Hospital: The Great Harry

The  peaceful St Nicholas chapel at the Memorial Hospital opened in 1986 after the closure of the St Nicholas Hospital that was situated in Tewson Road, Plumstead.  One of the windows in the chapel is known as the Golden Window, and illustrates the text “Suffer little children to come unto me”. According to the Lost Hospitals of London web site:

The ‘Golden Window’ was originally installed in 1956 in the Hospital chapel at Goldie Leigh Hospital. It was moved to the Memorial Hospital chapel and rededicated in December 1986.

That was all I could find out about this window, but I’ll add it to my list for the next time I’m in the library at the Heritage Centre.

What a  range of interesting local history was encapsulated in just three windows!

Stained glass window in Memorial Hospital Chapel: The Golden Window
Stained glass window in Memorial Hospital Chapel: The Golden Window

Rotunda Rings

A new sign on the Rotunda
A new sign on the Rotunda

A new sign has appeared on the Grade II* listed Woolwich Rotunda – “Woolwich Station Boxing Centre” – which could be good news for its future. Good news in that the building, which has been empty since its artillery museum exhibits moved to Firepower in 2001,  now has a use as a boxing gymnasium. However we can’t raise our hopes too high as there is still no definite information on whether it will be restored.

The building’s slow decay  has been a concern for some time; for example the Greenwich Phantom blog has published several posts about the Rotunda over the last few years. It is on the English Heritage “Heritage At Risk” register, which describes it as a:

24-side polygon, single storey building designed by John Nash. Concave conoid lead-covered roof; first erected in grounds of Carlton House in 1814 for (premature) celebration of Allied victory in Napoleonic wars. Housed the reserve collection of ‘Firepower’ museum but now vacant. Lead-sheet roof covering is failing.

The change of use is a result of the King’s Troop’s move to their new Woolwich barracks at Napier Lines. They have some 60 soldiers who are keen boxers and need somewhere to train. Inside the Rotunda the transformation to a Boxing Centre is well advanced – two boxing rings have been erected and gym equipment and punch bags have been installed.

Boxing ring in the Rotunda
Boxing ring in the Rotunda

The Rotunda is an amazing structure, and I recommend Jonathan C. Clarke’s fascinating paper, Cones, Not Domes: John Nash and Regency Structural Innovation which talks about its history and John Nash‘s design. Originally the building was self-supporting, it didn’t have the central “tent-pole” that was added after it was moved to its present site, and was described in 1830 as having “no equal but the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.”

The Rotunda was originally part of a complex of temporary buildings and rooms erected for the Prince Regent in 1814, taking ten weeks to build. It was the centrepiece of a fête in honour of the Duke of Wellington on 21st July 1814 to celebrate the abdication of Napoleon and his exile to Elba. Jonathan C. Clarke describes the role of the Rotunda:

The Rotunda, or ‘Polygon Room’ as it was originally called, was the showpiece of the ensemble of interconnecting temporary structures which were designed collectively to accommodate 2,500 guests, including royalty, nobility, foreign ambassadors, ministers and officers of state. The temporary buildings were laid out in an H formation to the south of Carlton House, and included refreshment rooms, promenades, giant supper rooms, a botanical arbour and a Corinthian temple to Wellington. At the centre of the whole arrangement was the Polygon Room, with three apartments to the east, west and north (Crook & Port 1973, p. 317).

Of course Napoleon escaped from Elba and was not finally defeated until the Battle of Waterloo on Sunday 18 June 1815.

It’s quite a contrast for the Rotunda  – from the magnificent focus of a major national celebration to a boxing gym in nearly 200 years – but at least it’s now back in use and there’s hope that this beautifully and elegantly engineered building will be saved.

Punch bag and gym equipment in the Rotunda
Punch bag and gym equipment in the Rotunda

Cabinet of Curiosities

The Mobile Allotment, designed by Lisa Cheung, which has been instrumental in developing Avant-Gardening's programme of activities. Named Most Innovative Growing Space on the Landshare.net website
The Mobile Allotment, designed by Lisa Cheung, at the Nightingale Estate

Arts and Environment project, Avant-Gardening, are looking for people who have stories to tell about their personal experiences of living in Greenwich to put in their Greenwich Cabinet of Curiosities. They are particularly searching for some of the lesser known and personal histories which add real colour to an understanding of the area. You can see some of their research so far on their tumblr blog. As they say in their project description:

The project aims to create a mobile archive and art exhibition that responds to the area through the voices of the people that live or pass through it; exploring hidden histories, folkloric tales and secret places, documenting the people and places of this diverse borough to capture a unique snapshot of the place, its people and its history. To help us achieve this aim we will be working with residents, schools and community groups to create a uniquely creative response to the borough and we need your help to achieve this. If you have any stories, home movies, photographs, loved places you want to tell us about or memories you are willing to share, please get in touch and we can arrange to come and meet you to document these stories for possible inclusion in the cabinet.

We are also looking for artists who have created Greenwich-related or inspired works that they would like us to consider for inclusion in the exhibition or to be documented in the cabinet itself. We are also interested in collaborating with like-minded artists interested in the environment, social and personal histories and psycho-geography.

Avant-Gardening is an artists’ collective led by artist Polly Brannan and project manager Paul Green, whose work investigates social spaces and the urban environment. Described as “artists in gardening gloves”, they have been going since 2008 and have completed a number of projects throughout London, and as far afield as Ethiopia. Their projects focus on environmental and sustainability issues and encourage the involvement of local people through workshops, community gardens and even a mobile allotment.

Nightingale Community Gardens Mini-orchard Banner
Nightingale Community Gardens Mini-orchard Banner

Another one of Avant-Gardening’s current projects is “The Place where Plums Grow” which aims to plant a number of small dwarf orchards in and around Plumstead, starting on the Nightingale Estate, reflecting the area’s history of orchards. The venture is a joint effort with the Welcare charity and the London Orchard Project:

“Starting in and around the community garden on Nightingale Estate we planted a small number of dwarf apple trees and ran a number of summer workshops with the children to raise awareness of the garden and fruit trees and their role in urban bio-diversity. This pilot project proved to be a great success and led to us developing the second phase of the project, to plant a wider variety of trees in the area and to encourage wider community participation.”

The next stage of planting takes place in a couple of week’s time on 16thFebruary 2012.

Blooming Barnfield Urban Farmers Guide
Blooming Barnfield Urban Farmers Guide

Avant-Gardening have also worked on the Barnfield Estate. Their Blooming Barnfield project during the summer of 2010 encompassed a wide range of activities, including a Barnfield Dream Team football challenge, Growing Stories workshops, the Big Avant-Gardening Lunch and a GPS walk around the estate looking for places for potential community gardens. All beautifully described in the Blooming in Barnfield Fanzine. One of the Avant-Gardeners also spent six weeks working with children at Plumcroft School on their allotment and arts and photography projects.

Last year Avant-Gardening started work on planning a project to create and plant a community garden on the Barnfield Estate.

For more information about Avant-Gardening, or if you have a story about local history to contribute to the Cabinet of Curiosities, contact Paul on e-mail: paul@avantgardening.org or telephone: 020 3239 9174

Co-op Changes Commence

Plaque outside the RACS building in Powis Street
Each for All and All for Each -Plaque outside the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society building

Some more good news, in my opinion, from Woolwich. The hoardings have gone up around the listed RACS building in Powis Street and work has started on its conversion into a 120 bed Travel Lodge hotel with new shops on the ground floor. The planning application includes a Heritage Statement that explains the conservation aspects of the development, and encouragingly states:

2.3 The exterior of the building is to remain largely unaffected, with exception to the ground floor shop fronts, which are non-traditional 1960’s replacements which do not contribute to the special interest of the building. In addition the principle front entrance is to undergo improvements, reinstating a traditional door in order to improve its appearance. The first and second floor windows are to be replaced with timber frames and slimlite double glazed units. The joinery details are to reflect the existing to maintain the appearance of the building. At roof top level it is proposed to install both P.V panels and plant units, both positioned to be visually unobtrusive. The majority of the external works to the front facade will be repairs, renovation and enhancements, preserving the architectural features and overall character of the building.

The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society was set up by workers at the Royal Arsenal in 1868, based on the principles of the Rochdale Pioneers. It initially sold basic food-stuffs. However it grew rapidly and at its height had a large network of stores, and owned farms that supplied the produce it sold. As with other Co-operative organisations it was very much involved in the local community, supporting education, establishing libraries and supporting youth clubs, a cricket club, an orchestra and two choirs. Profits were distributed to the people who shopped there in proportion to how much they spent – the divi.  I remember the light, tin divi tokens they used to give to shoppers, not that long ago (really).

Full length statue of Alexander McLeod standing in niche on front of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society building.
Statue of Alexander McLeod in front of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society building

The RACS building was completed in 1903. The statue outside, sculpted by Alfred Briscoe Drury, is of Alexander McLeod; the VADS web site describes the statue and provides a brief biography of McLeod:

Alexander Mcleod (1832-1902) one of the founders of Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (RACS), set up by Arsenal workers in 1868. First full-time secretary from 1882 until his death.
He was the son of Skye crofters and served an apprenticeship of five years as a mechanical engineer on the Firth of Forth. He then worked for Scottish railway companies. At the age of 27 he visited a friend at the Great Eastern railway works at Stratford and secured work at the Arsenal at Woolwich where he stayed until 1878. In 1882 he was appointed dual Secretary and Manager of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society which had been set up by a group of workers from the Arsenal in 1868, and he remained so until his death.
McLeod was held in high regard both locally and throughout the Co-operative Movement, described in fact as ‘a Prince among secretaries’ by George Jacob Holyoake, another revered figure in the Movement.  Died 17 May 1902. In his obituary in ‘Comradeship’, the RACS magazine, of June 1902, Holyoake said of him:
‘The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, standing like a pillar of cloud or of fire of old, to show to London the road to a better social system, is the monument that commemorates his life work’.

Alfred Drury also created the sculptures of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at the entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the statue of Joshua Reynolds in the courtyard of the Royal Academy and the Blackwall Tunnel Commemorative Plaque, as well as many others.

I’m hoping that the work on the RACS building is the start of a regeneration of the Northern end of the Woolwich shopping area. Planning approval has already been given for the redevelopment of the apex of the Woolwich triangle, with a “major retailer” lined up to occupy the largest of the new retail units there. The future of the art-deco RACS building on the opposite side of Powis Street still seems to be undecided, though there are suggestions that it won’t be demolished. There are indications that the art-deco Granada Cinema will be sensitively restored by the Christ Faith Tabernacle. Their Heritage Report has some fabulous pictures of the interior of the cinema in its prime. Then there is the middle of the odd-numbered side of Hare Street. I walk down there (fairly) often on my way to the gym at the Waterfront Leisure Centre. It seems such a shame that the proud old Victorian buildings have been given over to buddleia and broken windows. I look forward to news that they will also be restored and used again.

I think it’s great that so many of the changes to historic buildings in Woolwich and Shooters Hill have managed to strike a balance between architectural conservation and the requirements of modern use. As well as the current redevelopment of the RACS building, the Royal Arsenal development and the Royal Military College seem to have retained much of their historic architecture. And with all of the new housing being built maybe there’s hope for the regeneration of Woolwich’s retail area.

Artists Impression of the future RACS building from Greenwich Council Planning pages
Artists Impression of the future RACS building

The Mysterious P

The Royal P

I can’t resist a mystery, so when I saw the photograph above, by helenoftheways, on flickr, with its accompanying question about the origin of the crowned P I was intrigued, and had to know the answer.

The gateway with the crowned P is the entrance to a pretty walled garden that was once part of the old Jackwood House. It’s a quiet, secluded, contemplative area, dotted with plaques and benches in memory of former residents of the area, such as an analytical chemist at the Woolwich Arsenal and head woodsman at Castlewood House. The garden has appeared on e-shootershill before, in this post about Stu Mayhew’s picture and poem “Into the Secret Garden”.

For once google was unable to provide the answer. It did reveal that Sir Robert Bateson Harvey had lived at Jackwood House in the 1870s. Harvey, MP for Buckinghamshire was married to Magdalene Breadalbane Anderson, daughter of Sir John Pringle, so I wondered if the P stood for Pringle, but it seemed a bit far-fetched.

Undeterred, I headed for the library. As a regular browser of the local history sections of Woolwich Library and the Heritage Centre I felt there must be a chance of solving the mystery there. However I found the key to the conundrum serendipitously when reading The Story of Christ Church Shooters Hill in the Proceedings of the Woolwich and District Antiquarian Society. This included a couple of pages summarising development in the mid 19th Century when a number of grand houses in the area were built or enlarged. Almost in passing it mentioned that “Jackwood House was raised by Lord Penzance ….”.

Lord Penzance
Lord Penzance picture from wikipedia

With this piece of information google was a bit more forthcoming. An article in SENine confirmed that the P stood for Penzance, and that the crown with balls on indicates a baronetcy.

Lord Penzance was famous for breeding new varieties of Rose, particularly striving for strong fragrance, including one named after himself, one after his wife and many named after characters from Sir Walter Scott. He was also responsible for jailing a number of members of the clergy under the Benjamin Disraeli-backed Public Worship Regulation Act which banned the use of catholic rituals – so-called smells and bells – in protestant worship. This act wasn’t repealed until 1965. Lord Penzance’s definition of marriage in 1866 is still in use today in the UK and some Commonwealth countries:

I conceive that marriage, as understood in Christendom, may for this purpose be defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others.

Different sources give different dates for when Jackwood House was built. Some sources say 1862, but this is contradicted by a description of the House in a book entitled “Eminent Actors in Their Homes” by Margherita Arlina Hamm about two later residents of Jackwood House, the American actor Nat C. Goodwin and his wife Maxine Elliot at the end of the 19th Century:

The homestead dates from the fourteenth century. It is a low, irregular edifice with thick walls,  roomy stairways, queer passages, and mysterious closets. It has been built piecemeal at various times, and while the softening hand of the years has united the various parts into a harmonious whole, yet both walls and roofs indicate the constructive efforts of different minds. Each part has a roof of a different design, so that an interesting chapter in domestic architecture could be drawn from the roofs alone.

Jackwood House appears in the old Ordinance Survey maps of 1894 and 1914, but not that of 1866. However the 1866 map does have a large house named Mayfield in almost the same position as Jackwood, though a different shape. So was Jackwood House built by extending an existing older house? Another mystery, for another day!

Margherita Arlina Hamm’s description of Jackwood continues with more roses:

Lord Penzance Rose
Lord Penzance Rose from Roses UK

One part known as Miss Elliott’s rose garden is the fairest spot of all. In it are the plants presented to her by members of the nobility and royal family, and around these are specimens of nearly every rose known to horticulture. The old English tea-rose, both the white and the blush variety, grows here in perfection, as do the standard rose tree of France, the Jacqueminot, the Marechal Niel, the American Beauty of this country, and the climbing roses – white, pink, and red – of Kent and Surrey. Arbors and trellises afford shade to the visitor and support to vines, the peach and other wall trees. In England there is a quaint practice of training many fruit trees upon walls and trellises, which is almost unknown in the United States. It enables the gardener to secure a maximum of light and ventilation for the fruit, and to produce the fine specimens which carry off the prizes in the agricultural county fairs. It is near the rose garden that Miss Elliott holds tea-parties and levees in the afternoon, which are attended by the many friends – American, English, and French – of the host and hostess.
The interior of Jackwood Hall is as imposing in its way as the Tower of London. It was built at a time when the modern economical spirit had not come into vogue. The walls would stand a siege, while the beams seem large and strong enough to last a thousand years. The wainscoting is massive, and the floors have been worn by human feet, as well as by the hands of the cleaner, until they seem a work of art in themselves. The balmy climate of southern England permits the doors and windows to be kept open nearly all the year, and at many casements the vines and roses appear to have a mad desire to usurp the place of the curtains.

So a mysterious P leads to an interesting trip through local history, and leaves another mystery to be pursued. How satisfying is that!

The Mysterious P
The Mysterious P

Shooters Hill Scientists

Picture of the Academy  from a book called “The Gentleman Cadet His Career and Adventures at the Royal Military Academy Woolwich” by R.W. Drayson
Royal Military Academy in about 1844

As a one-time chemistry researcher I was very fascinated to discover that Michael Faraday was for twenty-one years the Chemistry Professor at the Royal Military Academy – between 1830 and 1851 – and that set me searching for other scientists who worked in the local area. I was pleasantly surprised at how much there was to find out  about science research in Shooters Hill and Woolwich. The picture of the Academy above is from a book called “The Gentleman Cadet His Career and Adventures at the Royal Military Academy Woolwich” by R.W. Drayson which tells the story of life as a cadet in around 1844, when Faraday would have been lecturing.
Faraday is widely regarded as one of the great scientists, especially for his work on electromagnetism, which provided the basis for the technological application of electricity, such as in the electric motor and the transformer, and the concept of the magnetic field. He is also known for the discovery of benzene and the liquefaction of chlorine as well as fundamental work on electrochemistry. It is reported that Albert Einstein had photographs of Faraday, Newton and Maxwell on his wall. In 1825 Faraday started the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, which are still going today. Farady resigned his post as Chemistry Lecturer at the Academy on the 9th February 1852, but little is known about his work while he was there.

Faraday’s successor as Chemistry Lecturer at the academy was Sir Frederick Abel FRS. Abel was born in Woolwich in 1827 and became the leading British authority on explosives, working at the Royal Arsenal as well as the Royal Military Academy. He won a patent dispute with Alfred Nobel, instigator of the Nobel Prize, who claimed that Abel’s Cordite infringed Nobel’s patent for Ballistite. Abel was responsible for the development of the Chemical Laboratory, Building 20, at the Royal Arsenal in 1864.

Building 20 at the Royal Arsenal Woolwich - the Chemistry Laboratory
Building 20 at the Royal Arsenal Woolwich - the Chemistry Laboratory

Abel’s assistant, and successor as Chemistry Professor, was Charles Loudon Bloxam. He resigned from the post in 1882 due to the lack of discipline. Perhaps he was the lecturer who suffered from the cadets’ creative coordinated clowning described in Guggisberg’s history of the RMA, “The Shop: The Story of The Royal Military Academy”:

To lecture single-handed to a class of seventy cadets on some abstruse problem in chemistry, accompanying it by some complicated practical experiments with things called retorts, and at the same time to keep order, is avery difficult task. The difficulties are further increased if you are a man of great kindness of heart, in love with your work, and not suckled on military discipline and methods.

If you are of an unsuspicious disposition, you would probably regard it as a curious coincidence that seventy cadets at one and the same moment should light seventy crackling and noisome fusees. For smoking was once allowed in the east lecture-room to drown the stinking fumes which are the peculiar properties of experimental science. You might even pass unnoticed the extraordinary fact that, five minutes later, seventy wax matches were struck in succession from the left-hand end of the front desk to the right-hand of the back row. Wrapt in the task of transferring some deep calculation from the brain to the blackboard, with your back turned to the audience, you would certainly — unless you were built differently to other people — miss seeing half-a-dozen cadets shinning up the tall pillars supporting the iron roof. But if you turn suddenly and catch them sliding down — well, it is a different matter.

Perhaps you may have occasion to bring off a slight explosion by the judicious mixture of certain acids, an explosion which reverberates through and shakes the  lecture-room in the most unusual manner. When the smoky fumes clear away you may be surprised to find that seventy cadets are stretched prone on the floor behind the desks. But when an individual, with the conscious innocence of youth on his bland and chubby face, in response to your invitation to explain matters, assures you that he  was fairly bowled over by the shock, what are you to do ? How can you possibly punish this child-like candour ?

The Academy also attracted many other scientists as professors and lecturers. They included:

  • Peter Barlow, a mathematics lecturer who invented new telescope lenses, known as Barlow Lenses, that didn’t distort colour.
  • James Marsh, who was born and died  in Woolwich and  who assisted both Faraday and Barlow.  He invented the Marsh test for detecting arsenic, following a request to test some coffee that a murder victim had been drinking shortly before he died.
  • Samuel Hunter Christie FRS who also worked with Peter Barlow and is known for his improvements to the magnetic compass.

Other Shooters Hill scientific activities during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries included the experiment in telegraphy using static electricity conducted on Shooters Hill by Dr Watson, bishop of Llandaff described in an earlier post. There is also a claim, in W.T. Vincent’s “The Records of the Woolwich District”, that Shrewsbury House was the birthplace of gas lighting in the early nineteenth century. A Mr. Winsor was said to have experimented with gas before the introduction of gas lighting, and to have erected the first gasometer in the grounds of Shrewsbury House, though this claim is subject to some doubt.

Castle House in Shooters hill was the home of Major Charles Edmund Stanley Phillips who has been described as the first British Medical Physicist. Major Phillips was the son of Samuel Edmund Phillips, the co-founder of the Johnson and Phillips Cable Company who is commemorated in the shelter in Shooters Hill Road, and he also donated the Telegraph Field to provide a site for the War Memorial Hospital. Some of his experimental work on electrical discharges and X-Rays was carried out Castle House, and he also used to ride by horse from Shooters Hill to work at the Royal Marsden Hospital in South Kensington. As well as his scientific work Major Phillips was an artist who exhibited at the Royal Academy and a violinist who owned a Stradivarius violin.

Scientific research, especially in explosives, continued at the Royal Arsenal from the time of Sir Frederick Abel almost up until its closure. This included research starting in the 1930s on the explosive known as RDX – an explosive that is more powerful than TNT. The term RDX is believed to stand for Research Department eXplosive, and the Chemical Research and Development Department at the Royal Arsenal were one of the originators of the term. Then in 1947 a project code named Basic High Explosive Research (BHER) was initially based at the Royal Arsenal, led by William Penney who became known as the Father of the British Nuclear Programme. This was the start of the project to develop Britain’s atom bomb.

The other local centre for scientific research in the 20th Century was the Woolwich Polytechnic, later to become part of the University of Greenwich. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that the Chemistry Department there had been run for 32 years by Professor Arthur I Vogel. I remember with affection Vogel’s text books on analytical chemistry which were an essential part of my scientific education, and are still used today (with updates). The most famous alumnus of Woolwich Polytechnic however must be Professor Charles K. Kao, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physics for his pioneering work on fibre optics at STC in Harlow – work that has been described as being as important as that of Marconi. Professor Kao’s many awards include an honorary degree from the University of Greenwich, but it seems especially fitting in view of the scientific history of the area that his awards also include the Faraday medal of the IEE.

Seven Centuries of Signalling

Lambarde's Carde of the Beacons of Kent
Lambarde's Carde of the Beacons of Kent. Shooters Hill is top left

The number of communications masts around the summit of Shooters Hill are a testament to the hill’s appeal as a communication centre. However the hill’s height and prominence, which make it attractive for modern wireless communication, coupled with its position guarding the route from London to the coast, have made it appealing to communicators for centuries.

The marvellous Colonel A.H.  Bagnold CB CMG tells a vivid and dramatic story of the hill’s role in message transmission before the advent of wireless communications. He places the start of its role as a Beacon Hill before the reign of Edward III (1312 – 1377), so about seven centuries ago. The complexity of the beacon system in Kent at the time of the Spanish Armada was plotted, on the map (or carde) shown above, by William Lambarde, who also founded the Queen Elizabeth College almshouse in Greenwich. Lambarde published the map in his book The Perambulation of Kent, credited as the first English county history, describing the reason it was drawn and how it could be used to decide the direction in which danger had been detected:

AS in warre, celeritie availeth no lesse, than force it selfe: So the Right honorable Sir William Brooke, Lord Cobham, and Lorde Chamberlaine of hir Majesties houshold (who hath been sole Lieutenant of this shire, since the first of hir Majesties Raigne) foreseeing how necessarie it was to have the forces of the countrie speedily draw togither, for the encounter of any hostilitie: and finding, that upon the fiering of the Beacons (which are erected for that service) not only the common sort, but even men of place and honour, were ignorant which way to direct their course, & therby (through amasednesse) as likely to run from the place affected, as to make to the succour of it: caused the true places of the Beacons to be plotted in Carde, with directorie lines, so many sundrie waies, as any of them did respect the other: By which, any man, with little labour may be assured, where the danger is, and thereof informe his neighbours. For example: suppose our first Beacon, standing on Shooters hill, to be light: he that will go thither may know by the watchmen from whence they received their light, which must be either from the West neare London, or Hamstede: or else from the East, by warrant of the fiered Beacon at Stone neare Dartford, or of that which is neare to Gravesende. The like of the rest: and so much for use.

Bagnold also describes the 1747 experiment in telegraphy using static electricity conducted on Shooters Hill by Dr Watson, bishop of Llandaff. The “observers” of the transmission stood on (insulating) amber while holding an earthed iron bar in one hand and the end of the two-mile long transmission wire in the other. A gun was fired when the transmission started and the observer timed the difference between when they heard the gun and when they received an electric shock!

Semaphore Station - the Murray Shutter telegraph
Semaphore Station - the Murray Shutter telegraph

Shooters Hill was a link in the next advance in communications as well – the Semaphore line. This used a set of rectangular frames containing six 5 foot high shutters to transmit messages between London and the coast. The first to be completed was between London and Deal in January 1796, with the following chain of stations: Admiralty (London), West Square Southwark, New Cross, Shooter’s Hill, Swanscombe, Gad’s Hill, Callum Hill, Beacon Hill (Faversham, branch point), Shottenden, Barham Downs, Betteshanger, Deal. The New Cross station was situated on Telegraph Hill – the Telegraph Hill Society’s web page includes a copy of a water colour sketch of the telegraph station, with the Shooters Hill station just visible in the distance.  As can be seen in Pocock’s wood-cut below,  the Shooters Hill station was on the ridge of the hill in an area known as Telegraph Field, which is now the site of the Memorial Hospital.  (You may recognise the top of this picture because it used to form the banner picture for this blog). At its best this line could send a signal from London to Deal and back in two minutes. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the Disc World Clacks system which featured in various of Terry Pratchett’s books, such as the magical “Going Postal”, though the Ankh-Morpork system seems to have been considerably quicker than the UK Admiralty’s!

R Pocock of Gravesend's woodcut of the Shooters Hill Gibbet  showing the Admiralty telegraph in the background (circled)
R Pocock of Gravesend's woodcut of the Shooters Hill Gibbet showing the Admiralty telegraph in the background (circled)

In the present day, as can be seen from the Ofcom mobile phone base station database, many of the communications masts on Shooters Hill are mobile phone or emergency service communication masts, including the Eaglesfield Road mast by the old fire station that was opposed by local residents led by SHAM.  There are even mobile phone antennae attached to

Water Tower and Oxleas Wood Mast
Shooters Hill Water Tower and the Oxleas Wood Mast

the windows  of the Victorian Water Tower at the crest of the hill – also opposed by local residents. However not all the masts are for mobile telecommunications. Some are thought to be communications systems for taxis or the ambulance service. The mast that can be seen behind the dairy in Foxcroft Road has been identified as a transmission mast for FM and DAB radio, for example the Digital One multiplex which carries a number of DAB channels including Talksport, Absolute Radio and Classic FM.

The Port of London Authority, who worryingly are advertising on their web site the availability of mast sites on Shooters Hill to telecommunications companies, have a mast just off Shooters Hill Road. This mast is a base station for the Automatic Identification System (AIS) which is used to identify and locate ships around the world, for example as shown in the map below from the Marine Traffic web site. The PLA mast also has a direct microwave link to a PLA Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) radar station at Blackwall Stairs, just across the river from the O2 dome.

Ham Radio enthusiasts also take advantage of Shooters Hill’s prominence, for example the Cray Valley Radio Society 2010 Summit was held in the highest pub in South London, the Bull at 416.7ft. The Society will be holding a Christmas Social Evening in the Bull in a couple of weeks time on Thursday 15th December 2011.

What next for communications in Shooters Hill? Well the 4G, or Long Term Evolution (LTE), technology is being trialled already – one trial by O2 includes the area around the Dome and Canary Wharf as well as central London. Live networks aren’t expected until 2014 beacause the frequencies won’t become available until analogue TV is switched off next year, but we can expect masts  to be upgraded beforehand. And after that …. who knows, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Shooters Hill was still a communications centre.

Marine Traffic map of waters around South-east UK showing ship locations
Ship locations in the Thames and round the Kent coast

Heroes' Corner

Memorial at Heroes' Corner, Greenwich Cemetery
The memorial at Heroes' Corner, Greenwich Cemetery

The Last Post always brings  tears to my eyes, and not just because it was played by a bugler at my Dad’s funeral. Remembrance Day was an important time of year for Dad. In the photograph, framed in black slate, that looks at me as I type he is wearing a poppy in his British Legion  beret. It was taken by  a Mercury photographer to illustrate an article about him selling poppies in Lewisham a few years before he died. Another picture shows him standing proudly to attention as the standard bearer holding the Light Infantry Association standard at a remembrance parade at the Chelsea Barracks.

Heroes Corner, in Greenwich Cemetery, is the area where 263 of the 556 First World War graves in the cemetery are located. As the Commonwealth War Graves Commission describes it:

“Greenwich Cemetery contains 556 First World War burials. More than half of these graves are scattered throughout the cemetery, but 263 form a large war graves plot known as ‘Heroes’ Corner’. Here, two curved screen walls bear the names of casualties buried both in the plot and in unmarked graves in the cemetery. The Second World War plot adjoins and contains 75 graves. An additional screen wall commemorates casualties buried in this plot and ten others buried in unmarked graves elsewhere in the cemetery. In all, the cemetery contains 124 Second World War burials, 3 of which are unidentified British soldiers. Section E contains a plot of 30 Norwegian service graves from the Second World War.”

The tragedy of the First World War is compounded by the courageous futility of mass charges against artillery and machine guns. My favourite poet, Wilfred Owen, captures the gritty reality and sadness, and also seems to express some of the anger we feel today at the waste of a generation.

    Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

The close relationship between Shooters Hill and the armed forces is epitomised by the monumental architecture of the cluster of military-related buildings around Woolwich Common – now the site of the shooting stadium for the 2012 Olympics. Close to the Greenwich Cemetery there is the former Royal Herbert Hospital, then the former military academy and of course the Woolwich Barracks. Nearby stands the ruin of St George’s Garrison Church, with its Victoria Cross memorial. Further up Shooters Hill is the Memorial Hospital.

Responsibility for raising the money to build the War Memorial Hospital was the role of the Remembrance Committee at the end of the First World War. They did this largely through public subscription, for example all the staff of the Woolwich Arsenal agreed to have a shilling a month deducted from their pay to contribute to the cost. The hospital was opened on the 2nd November 1927 by HRH the Duke of York, who also planted the Lawson Cypress that still stands in front of the hospital. The heart of the hospital is the Hall of Remembrance where two books of remembrance lie open, commemorating local servicemen and civilians killed in the two world wars. A page is turned every day.  Yesterday the civilian pages included records of six deaths in Red Lion Lane on the 19th October 1940 and deaths in Eglinton Road on 15th October 1940.

Hall of Remembrance at Memorial Hospital, Shooters Hill
The Hall of Remembrance at the Memorial Hospital

And the heroism and sacrifice has continued since the second world war:  Malaya – 40 British service personnel killed; Cyprus – over 105 killed; Korea – 765 killed; Aden – 68; The Balkans – 48; Kuwait – 47;  Falklands – 255; Northern Ireland 719; Iraq – 179; Afghanistan – 382. The last post has been sounded too many times.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

From Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen”.

Approaching sunset at the memorial at Heroes' Corner, Greenwich Cemetery
The going down of the sun at Heroes' Corner

Marvellous Mosaics

St George - a detail of the St George and the Dragon Mosaic, Garrison Church Woolwich
St George shown in the Victoria Cross Memorial mosaic in St George's Garrison Church

I was really pleased to read in the Mercury that the Heritage Lottery Fund had awarded a £396000 grant to put a tensile roof (of similar material to the O2 Dome) above the ruins of St George’s Garrison Church to conserve the remains, and to preserve the stunning mosaics that still decorate the walls. And also pleased that it is planned that the site will be fully accessible to the public once the work is complete in just over 2 years time; the detail of these marvellous mosaics should be seen by many more people.

The Heritage Lottery Fund web site describes the project, and also some of the history of the church:

“St George’s Garrison Church – built between 1863-67 to serve the Woolwich Garrison community – was designed in the Lombardi style of stock brick construction with red and blue vitrified detailing, and was decorated internally with mosaics, inlaid marble, and monuments to battles and servicemen fallen in armed conflict. It became the Royal Garrison Church in 1928 after a visit by King George V, however was reduced to a roofless shell after being hit by a V2 Flying bomb in 1944. Subsequently partly demolished to leave only the lower sections of the perimeter walls, the remains of the church now enclose a walled garden that has the feeling of a ‘secret’ garden.

Today, the church remains consecrated and is used for open air services by Service personnel in the Royal Artillery Barracks, and significant decorative interior remains. Notably, this includes the Victoria Cross memorial with a mosaic depicting St George and the Dragon, flanked by marble tablets inscribed with the names of all deceased gunners who won the Victoria Cross from the Crimean War to mid World War II. Ownership, as part of this project, is due to be transferred from the Ministry of Defence to HOLT Op at the start of November.”

I visited the church on one of its rare openings, on London Open House day a few years ago, and was struck by the detailed and colourful mosaics. These include the Victoria Cross Memorials’ St. George and the Dragon, a Peacock and a Phoenix rising from the ashes. An article from Dulwich OnView gave some background on the mosaics:

“Recent research by English Heritage has revealed that the mosaics were added in 1903 by Messrs Burke & Co of Newman Street in London – they include a wonderful peacock, the symbol of the Resurrection, and a phoenix, the symbol of immortality.”

The BBC Inside Out London programme on Monday 7th November at 7.30 will feature an item about the church and the efforts to conserve it.

Phoenix rising mosaic, St Georges' Garrison Church Woolwich
Phoenix rising mosaic, St Georges' Garrison Church Woolwich
Detail of Peacock mosaic, St George's Garrison Church Woolwich
Detail of Peacock mosaic, St George's Garrison Church Woolwich

Ghosts of Shooters Hill

The Midnight Hearse and More Ghosts
Elliott O'Donnell's book The Midnight Hearse and More Ghosts which contains the story of the Vanished Suitor of Shooters Hill

Elliott O’Donnell, one of the most famous ghost hunters of his day, wrote a very detailed and dramatic true account of a ghost in Shooters Hill in his story “The Vanished Suitor of Shooter’s Hill”.  This took place in Veremont House, Shooters Hill on January 3rd 1911.

Like all good ghost stories, after examining the haunted house with his pet fox-terrier, he decides to lock himself in ….

“Then I locked the front door, bolted all the windows, brewed myself some coffee over a spirit-kettle, gave the dog some milk and biscuit, and meditated where I had better sit for my vigil.”

And then, shortly after 12 o’clock had struck ….

“The scratching of an insect made my heart stand still; my sight and hearing were painfully acute. Presently a familiar sickly sensation gradually crept over me, the throbbing of my heart increased and the most desperate terror laid hold of me. The dog uttered a low, savage snarl. The house was no longer empty. Something was on the landing overhead, preparing, so my senses told me, to descend.

I could not stir, nor close my eyes—I could only sit there staring at the staircase, praying that the horror would soon emerge and that my ordeal would quickly be over. Down, down, down it came, until at last I could see it — a white, evil face surmounted by a mass of black hair. The eyes were the most alarming feature — large, dark, very lurid, very sinister—and they were fixed on mine with a mocking leer.”

The ghost turned out to be Bertha Rungate, who led Elliott to an old well where she had disposed of the body of Philip Rungate who she murdered after finding he was planning to elope with her governess. No-one knows where Veremont House was, or if it is still standing on Shooters Hill today  under another name.

Other supernatural manifestations in Shooters Hill include the white lady of Shooters Hill reputed to haunt the junction of Shooters Hill Road and Well Hall Road on 24th July each year, and the  ghostly footsteps which are said to haunt the Bull pub.

The Royal Herbert Hospital has hosted a number of ghostly occurrences, including spectral victorian nurses, a tolling death bell foreshadowing deaths on Ward  G4 and more ghostly footsteps…

“At about 3 am, as I was quietly reassuring a young soldier recovering from a collapsed lung, we both heard soft footsteps approaching the ward. I promised him a cup of tea once the visit from the expected Captain was over, and left his bedside to greet her.
As I reached the ward door, I saw that it was closed, but the measured tread seemed to pass me and continue into the ward itself. I`d love to claim that I bravely followed, but I stood rooted with terror to the spot. The spell was broken by the young soldier’s strangled yelp, and I ran to his bedside (disobeying, of course, every rule about running, except in Fire or Haemorrhage!) The unfortunate young man, gasping for breath told me that “The Sister” had come to his bed, but was “now vanishing”…His distress was acute, and I feared for his condition. The noise awoke the patient in the next bed, who put his light on, and my young soldier was able to draw long, if rasping breaths.”

Even after the hospital was converted into flats and became the Royal Herbert Pavilions there has been a sighting of a ghostly nurse.

Algernon Blackwood, spiritualist, short story writer and novelist, one of the most prolific writers of ghost stories in the history of the genre
Algernon Blackwood, supernatural story writer born in Shooters Hill

No post about the supernatural in Shooters Hill would be complete without mentioning Algernon Blackwood. He was born at Wood Lodge, a large house which used to be sited at the top of Oxleas Meadows, near where the Oxleas café is currently located.

Blackwood wrote over forty books including atmospheric gothic fiction, tales of the supernatural and stories about a psychic detective, Dr John Silence.  H.P. Lovecraft wrote about Blackwood “He is the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere” and Everett F. Bleiler called him “the foremost British supernaturalist of the twentieth century.”

He led an erratic and interesting life, and at different times was a farmer, a journalist and a British spy in the First World War. He also met the mystics Ouspensky and Gurdjieff.

He later appeared on Britain’s first television show, Picture Page, in 1936, and in the late 1940’s broadcast a regular Saturday Night Story programme on television in which he read a series of his supernatural tales, making  him a household name. He was awarde a CBE in 1949.

So look out for spectral nurses, supernatural footsteps and ghostly white evil faces with large, dark, very lurid eyes if you are out trick-or-treating this Halloween.

And hope that  you don’t hear the ghostly tolling of the death bell!