Tough Times

Demonstration outside Woolwich Centre about public sector pensions
Demonstration outside Woolwich Centre about public sector pensions

The well-stocked  Amnesty International Blackheath and Greenwich Book Sale gives me a feeling of reassurance that my obsession with books is not as bad as it might be. Other bibliophiles have it much worse than I do; they are already in the queue for the sale when I arrive at the Church of the Ascension about ten minutes before it opens, and they bring along suitcases and cardboard boxes to cram full of their purchases. In the last couple of sales I’ve, fortuitously, come away with books that seems appropriate to Amnesty International’s mission. At the sale a few weeks ago I bought a slim, 119-year-old, battered blue-brown covered hardback copy of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. With its yellowed, sometimes stained pages, that so clearly express such powerful ideas, I feel it is a truly beautiful object. OK, so maybe my book obsession is as bad as I suspected.

In his Introductory Mill writes of the need to protect the weaker members of the community from the “vultures” and “minor harpies” of the governing tribe or caste. Of course that should not be necessary now we elect our rulers, and we don’t have a governing caste …. or do we?

The members of the unions representing public sector workers who came out on strike last week, some of whom are pictured above demonstrating in front of the new Woolwich Centre, certainly feel under attack. As well as the proposed changes in their pension contributions and retirement age they also have to cope with the effects of a new forecast total of 710,000 public sector job losses and an extended pay freeze. Leaving aside the economics and the politics of public sector pensions, the public sector workers are undoubtedly experiencing tough times, an experience that is perhaps exacerbated by the perception that not all parts of society are experiencing their share of the toughness of the times.

Another group feeling under attack at the moment are disabled people and those unable to work due to medical conditions. The way in which the current Work Capability Assessments are being carried out has led some vulnerable, psychologically fragile claimants to despair , depression and thoughts of suicide.  Private Eye recently reported claims that these assessments had been cited as factors at 16 suicide inquests; these include Scottish writer and poet Paul Reekie.  Amidst reports that staff at Atos, the company contracted to carry out the assessments, have expressed very disparaging opinions about disabled claimants, the campaign group Black Triangle have called for a boycott of the Paralympic Games because of Atos’ involvement. I’m amazed that there hasn’t been more of an outcry about this failure to protect some of the weaker members of the community. Vultures and minor harpies indeed!

The FareShare Million Meal Appeal leaflet which was handed out to Sainsburys' shoppers on 26th November
FareShare Million Meal Appeal leaflet

The generosity of people in Woolwich, Greenwich and across the country in supporting the FareShare 1 Million Meal Appeal provides a cheering and striking contrast to these attitudes.  FareShare is a charity that is working to relieve food poverty. This is mainly achieved by redistributing quality food that food retailers are unable to sell and would otherwise throw away. The food is distributed through a network of some 700 organisations in the UK, such as church groups, hostels, women’s refuges  and school breakfast clubs. It  feeds about 35,500 people a day, up 20% from 29,000 last year, rescuing 3,600 tonnes of surplus food in the process.

The 1 Million Meal Appeal, a collaboration with Sainsburys, aimed to collect 1 million meals worth of food items that FareShare do not usually get because it is long shelf-life, such as rice, pasta and tinned food. They recruited hundreds of volunteers to hand out a shopping list of such items, shown above, at Sainsburys’ stores across the country and ask shoppers to donate. When I went in to the Sainsburys in Greenwich to do our weekly shop at around lunch time last week the volunteers’ sign said that shoppers had already donated 5 shopping trolleys full of food, and there was another full trolley on the way out. Across the country shoppers gave enough food for 600,000 meals, which was matched by Sainsburys to make 1.2 million meals in total. FareShare will provide food for about 250,000 Christmas lunches and dinners, so this is good timing.

Tough times, for sure. What would John Stuart Mill have thought about it? I think that one of his other books, Utilitarianism, puts him firmly on the side of the 99%.

Moving Architecture

Post-riot General Gordon Place showing burnt-out Great Harry pub and red-brick Victorian post office
General Gordon Place, with post office on the left

The demolition work along Grand Depot Road for the new Tesco’s complex quite often makes me pause as I walk down into Woolwich. I find the machine currently pecking away at the 60’s-style office block quite mesmerizing, and I’m usually not the only one standing watching its progress. I wouldn’t mourn the office block, but it always seemed a shame that the red brick Victorian post office, on the left in the post-riot photograph above, couldn’t be retained.

However some of it is to be preserved according to a new planning application on the Greenwich Council planning pages. This is the developer’s response to condition 34 of the original planning application, which asks for details of “the methodology for the removal of the imperial seal ‘VR’ (Victoria Regina) on the flank elevation of the Post Office  and its reinstatement within the development, together with other architectural features of merit on the Post Office (which shall include detailed consideration of the terracotta decorations of the gable ends, stone door surrounds and other architectural features of merit)” to be submitted to the Council before demolition starts. It includes details of how the bricks will be individually removed and bubble wrapped for storage, including marked up photographs showing which features will be preserved.

Unfortunately “Details of their reinstatement have not been formulised at this stage” – which I think means they don’t know where they will put the preserved features – so they will be put into storage. Looking at the computer-generated images of the glass-faced monolith that is being built, it’s not clear to me where the preserved Victorian decoration could possibly fit

Incidentally, progress on the development is being recorded on a pair of web cams.

Mystery of the Missing Plaques

Dedication of Dove Tree to those who served in the Burma Campaign 1941-45
Dedication of tree to those who served in the Burma Campaign 1941-45

There has been a long association between Woolwich and the army, as Lieutenant Colonel Adam Crawley of the 2nd Battalion of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment said in his address at the culmination of Woolwich Back to Business Week in General Gordon Square. So it is particularly appropriate that three trees in the square were dedicated to victory in the Second World War and to the remembrance of those who served and died in it.

The trees were dedicated to the memory of those who served in the Burma Campaign, to Victory in Europe and to remember those who died in the Holocaust and Jewish servicemen who were killed in the war.

But the brass plaques describing the dedication for each tree seem to have been removed immediately after the ceremonies. The holes in the grass where they were planted are still there, but no plaques. I wonder what happened to them, and if they will return?

Postscipt: I noticed yesterday, 31st January 2012, that the plaques are now back in place – three months later.

Grinitch and Owilige

Proof-reading and correcting issues of Charles Dickens’ weekly magazines may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but I’m finding it very satisfying, and absolutely fascinating. I’m one of many volunteers contributing to the Dickens Journals Online’s project to create a complete online copy of Charles Dickens’ weekly magazines, Household Words and All the Year Round which were first published between 1850 and 1870. Some of Dickens’ books, such as Great Expectations, were originally published in weekly instalments in these magazines, but they also covered many other topics, including travel writing, politics and general interest articles.

The journals have all been scanned and converted to text files using optical character recognition. The task of the volunteers is to correct any errors from the OCR and tidy up the formatting. I’ve found some journals quite easy, just correcting occasional words, though a couple of pages of my first issue had the columns of text merged into one another and took some time to disentangle. There are some 30000 pages to correct, and the target is to finish in time for the Charles Dickens’ bicentenary in February 2012. Progress has been good so far – 41% of the journals corrected – and all of them allocated to someone to correct.

One great result of the project will be that the journals become searchable, and I couldn’t resist searching for local place names. There weren’t many mentions of Shooters Hill; the most interesting was from September 1851 where Shooters Hill is seen as a haven to escape from the odours and perils of London:

HEARING and seeing all we do of London, with its Thames water, odorous, sewerage, precipitous wooden pavement; its Smithfield, its Guildhall balls to Royalty, its earnest and liberal patronage of dirt and filth, few strangers, whether provincial or continental, would dream of the existence of such places as Shooters Hill, Kew, Hendon, or Hampstead, at but a few miles of omnibus or steam-boat distance.

Nowhere near as engaging as Dickens’ marvellous, murky and muddy description of the 1775 ascent of Shooters Hill in A Tale of Two Cities.

Woolwich and Greenwich are mentioned many more times, including an interesting Eye Witness Account of work at the Woolwich Arsenal in 1859, and a multitude of whitebait dinners at Greenwich!

One that particularly caught my eye, and which resonates with 21st century discussion about the pronunciation of Greenwich, was an article entitled “Valentines Day at the Post Office” from 30th March 1850. This concludes with a section on misaddressed letters that the postmen have to decipher:

Front page of Household Worlds Volume 1, 1850
Household Worlds Volume 1, 1850

For the next specimen of spelling there is some excuse. ‘In England,’ says a French traveller, ‘what they write “Greenwich,” they pronounce “Grinitch,” and I am not quite sure that when they set down “Solomon,” they do not pronounce it “Nebuchadnezzar.” ‘ ‘I much question,’ continued one of the amateur Post-Office inspectors, ‘ if either of us had never seen the name of the place to which the following superscription applies, that we should not have spelt it nearly similarly to the correspondent of —

Peter Robertson
2 Compney 7 Batilian
Rolyl Artirian

‘Although the writer’s ear misled him grievously in the other words, he has recorded the sound into which we render Woolwich with curious correctness.’

So it’s Grinitch, fine, …. but Owilige?

The End of an Era

The title of Frances Ward’s next talk is “The End of an Era”, and it takes place at the Heritage Center, and also her last talk for the Centre before she retires at the end of the year. It really will be the end of an era for those of us who have been entertained and educated by Frances’ talks on the history of Greenwich, and her excellent walking tour of the Woolwich Arsenal site.

The latest Activities and Events Listing from the Greenwich Heritage Centre announces the talk and Frances’ retirement:

The End of an Era

Saturday 3rd December 2pm at the Greenwich Heritage Centre
A talk by Frances Ward on Greenwich in old postcards. £3 including light refreshments. Booking recommended.
Call 020 8854 2452 to reserve a place.

This will be the last talk by Frances for the heritage Centre, as she will retire on 31st December 2011. She will be sorely missed by everyone who enjoyed her talks, sessions for schools, or visited the search room as well as her colleagues in the council.

There are seldom any spare seats at Frances’ talks, so I suspect this will fill very quickly.

Frances mentioned at her last talk, The Peopling of Greenwich, that she plans to continue her historical research in retirement, and also to return to the Heritage Centre to talk about it. I’ll certainly look forward to that, and would like to wish Frances a long and happy retirement.

Changing Views

I’ve been a fan of e-shootershill for several years, so it’s a little bit daunting to be taking on the job of chronicling happenings on the hill and the surrounding areas. Producing a repository of “Hilliana” as my predecessor so succinctly expressed it.

Learning the technology involved in blogging is also a little daunting, and my initial posts may not be as technically sophisticated as some previous ones!

Why did I offer to take on e-shootershill? Well, I agree wholeheartedly with the aim of maintaining a journal of record of Shooters Hill – and there’s plenty to record. One of the many things I love about living here is the tremendous sense of community and local involvement. For example there are so many volunteer-led events and activities. Volunteers run the friends of Eaglesfield and Shrewsbury parks organisations. The latter organise the fabulous dog-show at the Shrewsbury Park Summer Festival which has become an essential item in the calendar. And then there are all the people who help at Woodlands Farm – from managing the charity through to mucking out the pigs, not to mention organising large-scale events such as Apple Day (coming up next Sunday, 23rd October). And many more that I haven’t come across, yet, though I’ve seen hints of their activities.

View from top of Brent Road towards Olympic Stadium and O2 Dome
View from top of Brent Road towards Olympic Shooting and Archery Stadium on Woolwich Common and O2 Dome

I was also seduced by the unexpected and sometimes uncelebrated architectural gems that ornament the hill and its surroundings, and the intriguing glimpses into history that comes with them. There aren’t many places in London where you come across a Bronze Age burial mound as you walk down the street. Blogging about the area will be a strong motivation to find out more about local history.

Of course the stunning views from the hill, over Kent, Essex and the panoramic London horizon from Wembley’s arch to the London Eye justify the inclusion of topics slightly further away from home, and give me an opportunity to experiment with including some pictures in this first blog. For the view isn’t static, for example the 2012 Olympics have imposed themselves, with the shooting and archery stadium rapidly rising on Woolwich Common.

View towards the (incomplete) Shard in August 2011
The Shard at sunset from Shooters Hill

And the Shard has also been rapidly rising, further away on the horizon. The Shard has come in for criticism from some commenters, but I feel a kind of affinity that started when I used to walk past the building site on my way to work, often pausing to watch the long, slow work of boring and excavating the foundations and then, later, astounded at how quickly it grew.

Like previous bloggers on this site I welcome comments and suggestions.

Palm Beach Nkwobi Spot

Woolwich is getting “Back to Business” after the riots, and in response to calls to support local enterprise, it occurred that one way to do so might be to make a beeline for the Nigerian businesses that have, in some ways, helped to keep local commerce alive in the years between the exodus of the Woolwich Building Society, Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society et al, and the arrival of new investment from the council, Berkeley Homes and Tesco.

For several years now there’s been more and more Nigerian shops in the SE18 area, and having followed the food related ponderings of local musicians Afrikan Boy and Tinie Tempah, the time seemed right to try out some West African cooking.

I went to Palm Beach, which is opposite the swimming pool. The reception there was possibly the most good-natured I’ve ever had at a restaurant in this country, and the family that run the place provided a fun and detailed explanation of Nigerian eating and drinking. Broadly speaking there seems to be no wheat or potatoes, and key ingredients include eba (cassava), yam, egusi (melon seeds), beef (nkwobi is hoof stew), tropical fish, and enough scotch bonnet pepper to give you a long and pleasant afterglow. For drinks I tried Palm Wine and Nigerian Guinness, which is much stronger than the Irish type. Overall, I found the intensity of this style of cooking very enjoyable, and am looking forward to trying some more West African fare in the near future, probably at one of the other Woolwich restaurants. At Palm Beach, the cost of mains and drinks was £10-15 per person.


On Monday, a week after the Woolwich riots, I decided that it was time I saw the aftermath for myself. I also wanted to see the Woolwich Wall (the boards outside the Wetherspoons Pub).

Wellington Street remained closed at the point it meets General Gordon Square, I’m not sure why exactly but I’m assuming it’s to do with controlling access to the Pub whilst the surveyors examine the damage.

The wall has already been the subject of much blogging on 853, and woolwichriots has also aggregated some riot coverage. More recently the wall has attracted some media interest and attention. It will also be the meeting point for a community gathering this Thursday the 18th of August from 7pm.

My overall impression of the wall is that most of the messages on there fall into three main categories: those declaring love for Woolwich and Wetherspoons; those directing dismay and anger towards the rioters; and those reflecting on what it all means. The display of affection for Woolwich is particularly striking, mainly because the place has felt relatively unloved since its grand art deco cinemas and shops went into decline in the mid nineties. For this reason, the Woolwich Wall could be a significant step in getting the place back on track as it prepares to host the Olympics next year.

Apart from the Wetherspoons, other places that were affected by fire include the pile of rubble which now stands where Blue Inc. (and the flat above) used to be. This was the most disturbing sight I encountered, and I’m pleased to say no one was seriously injured in this fire, although the strain of having one’s home or workplace burnt down is still a terrible thing to have to deal with. The adjacent section of Powis Street remains completely closed off, and includes the JD Sports and Nandos opposite, which are boarded up.

Fires also affected several units around the new Wilkinsons supermarket, including Barclays, and The Point, a young peoples’ service, which illustrates the self-destructive nature of the rioting.

As well as burning, the riots also saw quite a bit of looting. I was saddened to see the boarded windows at Birts Jewellers, which must be one of the longest running businesses in Woolwich, having been around for nigh on two centuries. Pasted up outside were signs reading “Closed due to Riots, for peace of mind, items pledged are secure.” What this hopefully means is that Birts will be back. I have a soft spot for the place, partly because it’s so old, but also because when buying some important jewellery a few years ago, and having been put off by the aggressive salespeople at Hatton Garden, I found the staff at Birts to be amongst the warmest shopkeepers I’d ever met. I’ve been back to the place several times since, and hope to do so again very soon.

I didn’t look everywhere, but I believe that Charles Dance Jewellers on Hare Street was also broken into (another very long running local firm), as was another jeweller on Powis St, but not H. Samuel, which was open as normal. Other shops targeted by looters included the banks, bookies, and electrical gadget chains.

Despite all the wanton destruction, the vast majority of shops on Powis Street were open as usual, and the prevailing atmosphere was no less bustling than it has been over the last few years since it began to overcome the decline of the nineties. In terms of atmosphere, Woolwich town centre seems to be coping stoically, even heroically with the aftermath of the unrest, and the Woolwich Wall, and the grass roots organisation behind the meeting this week confirm that there is a healthy determination to continue regenerating the town.

Woolwich Riots

Last night there was rioting in Woolwich which culminated in arson attacks on a number of buildings. Surprisingly, there are still a lot of people in the surrounding area who aren’t aware of this, mainly due to the lack of coverage in the mainstream media; Twitter however gave rise to an increasingly heartbreaking series of images during the night, starting from around 8pm, and ending up with those showing the buildings around General Gordon Square in flames. The fire brigade were still fighting major blazes in Woolwich at 3am.

This video shows young people chasing riot police away from General Gordon Square down Thomas Street just after 10pm last night.

rioting, looting and burning in woolwich

Some of the photos posted on Twitter showing the burning police car on New Road, the looting on Powis Street, and the arson attack on the Great Harry Pub.

The twitter reports that are used here came from a number of sources, including mister mercer, jelvesie (who captured the footage above), and dontcallmedick, among others. Although the police have suggested that people shouldn’t observe the riots, there was no press coverage, so citizen reporters were the only source of local info on this terrible night.

The leader of the council has made a statement, in it he restates his commitment to regenerating Woolwich, which has been going well, and this was discussed recently. The leader also insists that he will help the shopkeepers in affected areas, and hold the perpetrators to account.

update 10/8 – here’s a film of the cleanup from yesterday

Living Streets: The Local Joke

Today a campaigning organisation called Living Streets sent in an email asking for the site to draw attention to the problems that can occur when useful community services are replaced with ones that are arguably less so.

Recently during a discussion on the 853blog about the future of Woolwich, the topic of the conversion of the Woolwich Equitable building (built in 1935) into a Bookies shop led to the revelation that Banks and Bookies fall into the same class with regard to planning, making it relatively easy for Bookies to move in to High Street locations. This may not immediately seem like such a threat to Woolwich, but in Deptford bookiefication has become a phenomenon, and at the last count it was observed that their high street had eight bookies. At a time when Woolwich is rediscovering its sense of civic pride, it could do well to avoid a similar invasion, although the Powis street pedestrian precinct is currently bookie free.

The campaign is promoting a greater say for communities in how changes in the use of public buildings are agreed, and in particular they are hoping to persuade the Secretary of State for Communities to reconsider proposals to further reduce the protections offered by national planning guidelines. As an aside, the proposed changes will also relax planning requirements for things such as preserving historical features, conducting archeological surveys, and protecting views – which is possibly going to be an issue when Furze Lodge is extended upwards.

The campaign is called the Local Joke, and adds to ongoing work on pedestrian safety carried out by Living Streets.

Living Streets campaign for more community access to changing uses of public buildings

The Local Joke