Greenwich Free School Open Evening at Shrewsbury House

The Greenwich Free School will be holding an open evening at Shrewsbury House on Thursday evening (2nd February) from 7 to 9. If it’s anything like the last one on 19th January it will be well attended. As they say on their web site:

All are welcome – parents and children – and there is no need to book: just turn up on the night.

At the open evenings, there will be an opportunity to meet our Headteacher, Deputy Headteacher and Governors – as well as hear about the educational plan for the Greenwich Free School and find out more about the process of opening in September.

You will also be able to pick up paper application forms and get help filling out the forms, should you wish.

The Greenwich Free School is a secondary school, headed by Lee Faith, which opens in September 2012. Their press release summarises their approach to education:

The school will have smaller classes; a ‘no excuses’ approach to attitude, work and discipline for staff and pupils alike; an extended day; a ‘depth over breadth’ focus on core subjects – English, Maths and Science; and a wide-range of compulsory daily extra curricular activities.

Interestingly, like the Shooters Hill Schools of Arts and the South London Free School, one of their proposed locations is Adair House (the other option is Polytechnic Street in Woolwich). Will  Adair House finally provide a home to a free school?

Adair House - Possible Home for the Greenwich Free School?
Adair House - Possible Home for the Greenwich Free School?

Postscript: Greenwich Free School confirmed on 25th February that they have secured Adair House as their permanent site.

Grand Tour

The Woolwich Grand Arts Cafeteria is Now Open
The Woolwich Grand Arts Cafeteria is Now Open

The Woolwich Grand Theatre is open for Grand Tours tomorrow (28th January) – providing an opportunity to see the parts of the theatre that the public rarely see. As Theatre Director Adrian Green explains in his Facebook message:

The Woolwich Grand Theatre will be holding an open day on the 28th of January from 10am to 4pm for everyone to come and have a grand tour of the building, boiler room, the upper circle projector room and other areas of interest to you. Come and join us and have a lovely cup of tea. We will be charging £6 per person.

This follows the musical fund raiser last Friday and the opening of the Arts Cafeteria on Wednesday.

The music last Friday was superb. An excellent  acoustic Candythief unplugged set, including songs from the Partisan CD was followed by a rumbustious Mr Ron Jetson on a very expensive piano accompanied by violin and saxophone. The evening concluded with the amazing voice of the Falsifiers’ Liam Ings-Reeves, whose deep, gravelly, bluesy versions of the chain gang song Another Man Done Gone and the spiritual Wade in the Water contrasted with a gentler Jess Hannar solo. The whole evening well lubricated by Adrian’s jokes.

Adrian said that he will invite these musicians back to the Grand in future. I’ll be looking out for that; they’re definitely worth seeing and hearing again.

Next at the Grand is a music and poetry evening on Friday 17th February:

The next event will be Friday 17th February, we will be holding a comedy and music evening featuring warm up comedians, two bands and a poet, details to follow. After being allowed to open this will be our last free performance evening for now.

It’s great to see the Grand getting going.

Inside the Woolwich Grand Theatre
Inside the Woolwich Grand Theatre

Eltham Common Public Inquiry

Google Maps' view of Christ Church School and the common land meadow behind it
Google Maps' view of Christ Church School and the common land meadow behind it

A public inquiry will be held on the 8th and 9th February into the proposal for Christ Church School to use common land on Eltham Common. The Planning Inspectorate’s notice of the meeting states:

Proposed works on Eltham Common CL40

London Borough of Greenwich

Application reference number – COM 219

Ms Heidi Cruickshank, an Inspector appointed by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will attend at The Public Hall, Woolwich Town Hall, Wellington Street, SE18 6PW on Wednesday 8 and Thursday 9 February 2012 to hold an inquiry into an application by Pellings LLP on behalf of London Borough of Greenwich for consent under Article 12 of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government Provisional Order Confirmation Act 1967 to carry out works on Eltham Common (CL40).

The proposed works comprise the formation of new hard and soft play areas consisting of playground (245 square metres), multi-use games area (858 square metres), soft/grass play area (660 square metres) and new planting (55 square metres and 48 square metres). All areas to be enclosed by fencing (2.1 metre high by 44.5 metre long and 2.7 metre high by 51.7 metre long weld mesh fence) and railings (1.5 metre high by 73.75 metre long painted metal) with gates. A new footpath will be formed from Shooters Hill Road alongside the existing school to the school and new play areas.

The inquiry will begin at 10.00am on Wednesday 8 February 2012. Anyone can attend the inquiry. Anyone who wants to be heard on the subject matter of the application may, at the discretion of the Inspector, give evidence at the inquiry or arrange for someone to do so on his or her behalf.

Copies of the application documents, representations, and plan can be inspected at Eltham Centre Library, Archery Road, Eltham, SE9 1HA (not public holidays). Copies of the application documents and plan are also available on request from the Planning Inspectorate, Room 4/05, Kite Wing, Temple Quay House, 2 The Square, Temple Quay, Bristol BS1 6PN

The original application for the school’s rebuilding work and creation of a play area and muga court was approved by Greenwich Council in November. (What’s a  muga court? I had to look this up –  wondering whether muga was a new game, some kind of Nepalese Quidditch perhaps – but it’s just a Multi-Use Games Area). Unfortunately the revamp of the Greenwich Council web-site means that the original documentation is not currently accessible, but the notice above summarises the issue – the use of a 50m by 40m area of common land for a games area for the school when the school buildings are extended into their existing play ground. The area is the field behind the school, alongside the track that leads to Severndroog Castle. The Google Maps snippet above shows the area quite clearly. By my reckoning 50m is  perhaps half the length of the meadow.

Campaigners against the proposal point out that Eltham Common is designated as Metropolitan Open Land, an Area of Special Character of Metropolitan Importance and part of the London Green Chain. Significantly it is also Registered Common Land, which is why there has to be a public inquiry into the proposed changes. Dr Barry Gray gives the details of the reasons for objection in an interview in the Plumstead Common Environment Group Newsletter, arguing, among other factors, that:

The proposed grassland area on which the MUGA pitch is proposed to be built is in an area which is extremely important for nature conservation. In the Greenwich Borough plan it is designated as a Site of Nature Conservation Importance of Metropolitan Importance. This means that it is in the highest category in London and its retention as an ecologically sensitive area is important for London as a whole. I have already alluded to the importance of this site and I think you should bear this in mind when looking at the ecological impact and the landscape impact of the proposed inappropriate development. To quote the Greenwich Borough plan policy 018 “a network of sites of nature conservation importance throughout the borough have been identified for protection”.It seems to me to be a strange form of protection to propose to cover most of the site, in this instance, with hardstanding material for what is, in effect, a fenced soccer pitch.

But, and this is a big but, Christ Church School needs to be able to expand its current accommodation for staff and pupils. It is cramped in its current building, but despite this the school was rated Grade 1 – Outstanding – in its last Ofsted Report. And the area of land involved is quite small when set against the size of Eltham Common, not to mention the totality of the common and woodland area across Shooters Hill.

Although Greenwich Council’s decision to approve its application for the Equestrian Centre next to Woodlands Farm isn’t, and shouldn’t, be a factor in the Planning Inspector’s decision, I feel it complicates the issue. The Equestrian Centre will also be built on Metropolitan Open Land.  It feels like the council is gradually chipping away at the area’s Metropolitan Open Land, paying no respect to its own rules and guidelines set out in the Unitary Development Plan. It prompts the question what will they grab next? Personally if there was a choice between building an Equestrian Centre that won’t provide much benefit to the local community, and allowing an outstanding school the space it needs to do its job I’d have no hesitation choosing approval of the school’s plans.

It should be an interesting Inquiry meeting; I don’t envy the Inspector her decision.

Eltham Common at the back of Christ Church School
Eltham Common at the back of Christ Church School

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

Olympics Parking in Shooters Hill

Shooters Hill 2012 Olympic Parking Restrictions
Shooters Hill 2012 Olympic Parking Restrictions

I just caught the LOCOG/Greenwich Council/TfL stand in General Gordon Square about traffic management during the games before the wind and rain blew them in to Woolwich Library. They will be there again tomorrow (weather permitting I guess), and they have published some, but not all, of the displays on the London 2012 web site.

The proposed road closures weren’t surprising. Roads around the Olympics venues  – Ha-Ha Road, Circular Way and perhaps less expectedly Repository Road – will be closed. There will be a checkpoint for traffic coming along Charlton Road, with all non-games traffic diverted down Stadium Road. Buses will be diverted around the closures.

The main impact proposed for us Shooters Hill residents will be a large extension of the residents parking zone across the hill, as shown in the extract from the map, above. The additional area is North of Shooters Hill Road, bordered on the East by the Golf Club and Shrewsbury Park, Wrekin Road and Ennis Road down to the Common then down to join the current restricted parking zone round Plumstead Station. Details of how we can get parking permits, including permits for visitors, will be communicated “early in 2012”. The web site does say that we are entitled to visitor permits, but not how many.

Providing they get all the details right this sounds like a good way to deter Olympic games spectators from filling all the roads around the venues with parked cars, with not-too-much impact on residents. Parking fines are likely to be increased to £200 for the duration of the Games.

If you want to comment on the proposals, and can’t get along to the drop-in session, the London 2012 web site gives the following methods:

Have your say

Post: Freepost Traffic and Parking enquiry
Phone: 08000 111 300

Grand Opening on Friday

Vision of the Woolwich Grand Theatre

Some excellent news from the Woolwich Grand Theatre. Following a successful sound check by Greenwich Council last Wednesday evening, they will be opening this Friday (20th January) with a Music Fund Raiser Night. Here is the FaceBook invitation from the Grand’s Director, Adrian Green:

Dear friends,
As we warm up to what I hope will be our opening soon we are having another music fund raiser night on the 20th January at 7.30 Three different acts who have given their time to help are cause

Candythief: Drawing on alternative, folk, rock and indie influences, the songs are melody-driven and eclectic in style, lyrical and direct, coloured by the unusual song structures typical of Candythief arrangements. Thematically, it deals in an uplifting way with the possibility that modern culture has sold us a bit of a lemon.

The Falsifiers: Liam, Jess and Adam. Tom Waits, hill-billy edgy sweetness combining guitar, fiddle and washboard for not-so-rickety yet rickety song.

Mr Ron Jetson: A three piece version consisting of Ron as himself and this time on piano, with Luke Barlow providing saxophone and Jess Hannar on violin. Songs for all the ages strangely combining Waits with the Dan.

Please come down and support us and change Woolwich for the better.
Many thanks

Candtyhief was started by singer-songwriter Diana de Cabarrus on vocals/guitar/sandwiches, and at full strength comprises Jem Doulton on drums, Jason Dickinson on fiddle and Jason Simpson on electric & double bass.Their latest, and third album is Partisan,  embedded below. Mr Ron Jetson‘s latest album is Danger Danger.

Sounds like it will be an amazing evening of music, at  a great venue!

Colin Fifield and Ray Marshall Waterscapes Exhibition

Waterscapes ExhibitionThe Ripley Arts Centre in Bromley will host a joint exhibition by two local artists, Colin Fifield and Ray Marshall, starting on the evening of 31st January and running to 24th February. Ripley Arts Centre is located at 24 Sundridge Avenue, Bromley, Kent, BR1 2PX – not far from Bromley town centre.

The Bromley Arts Council description of the event  includes the following profiles of the two artists:

Colin Fifield – profile
Colin lives on Shooters Hill, South East London. He first studied art and design at Camberwell School of Art from 1958 to 1962 specialising in Painting, Lithography and Illustration. He was awarded the National Diploma in Design (NDD) in 1962. From 1962 to 1964 he completed a two year post graduate course in Painting and Engraving at the Slade School of Fine Art, University of London where was awarded the Slade Diploma in 1964. His art has always been very eclectic. His interests range from landscape paintings in oils, watercolours and acrylics. His main inspiration comes from the landscapes of the South East Coast especially the areas of Dungeness, Deal and Hastings.

Ray Marshall – profile
Ray Marshall was born in Lambeth and moved to Plumstead, South East London, in 1975, where he has remained a local resident since. Having undertaken some formal study at Morley College, tutored by Lawrence Toynbee among others, Ray is mostly self-taught. His work covers an eclectic mix of subjects, taking inspiration from nature, architecture, historical references, dance and music and the general observation of the world around us.

Ray’s interests provide a wealth of stimulation as he enjoys walking in the countryside and urban settings, cross country running, motorcycling and bird watching, as a member of the RSPB. These activities afford the opportunity for collecting photos, sketches and notes which provide reference material for his work in watercolour, oils, pen and ink and pencil drawings.

This wide ranging body of work has been exhibited in a number of local shows and produced commissioned works for patrons both locally as well as in America, Canada and Australia.

Colin Fifield Pottery
Colin Fifield Pottery

Colin Fifield is also a potter, specialising in stoneware especially domestic pottery such as mugs and jugs. He  is one of the Eltham Art Group who have an exhibition at the Blackheath Halls in March which will include oil paintings, photography and contemporary images. Other members of the Eltham Art Group are Claire Rowlands, Peter Clark, Graham Redmayne and Graham Davies.

Ray Marshall painted the Shooters Hill montage that can be seen in the Bull and in the Oxlea Wood Café. This depicts many Shooters Hill landmarks, for example the Water Tower, the Bull, Severndroog Castle, Ypres milestone …. even one of the wrought-iron encased red balls that sit on top of the pillars outside Herbert Pavilions. Ray is a member of the Plumstead Painters and Potters group which regularly exhibits their paintings, watercolours and pottery.

There are many other artists associated with Shooters Hill – William Robert Earl, Colin Ashford, Jon Sullivan to name just a few. I hope  they will feature in future posts.

Photograph of Ray Marshall's Shooters Hill montage
Photograph of Ray Marshall's Shooters Hill montage

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.