Young Shoots & Local History Walks on Sunday

Woodlands Farm Monthly Walks 2014-15 poster

If you are interested in nature or in local history there is a walk for you on Sunday. Woodlands Farm are hosting the last of their series of guided walks at 10.00am, and the Shooters Hill Local History Group have a circular walk round Woolwich Common starting at 11.00am.

Hannah, Woodlands Farm’s Education Officer, wrote with details of their Young Shoots Guided Walk:

Spring has firmly arrived at Woodlands Farm with lots of blossom and fields full of lambs. Join us for a guided walk round the farm to find out more about this wonderful time of the farming season. The walk starts at 10am, meeting in the green building. Sturdy footwear and suitable outdoor clothing is required, the walk does include climbing a stile, so is not suitable for young children or buggies. The walk is free, but donations are welcome.

Pussy Willow at Woodlands Farm
Pussy Willow at Woodlands Farm

Steve sent details of the Local History Group walk. It starts at the former Shooters Hill Police Station on the corner of Shooters Hill and Well Hall Road at 11.00am and is expected to take about one and a half hours at a leisurely pace. It will include: the historical background to the Herbert and Brook Hospitals; the Greenwich Free School site; the Queen Elizabeth Hospital; the former Woolwich Stadium site; the Ha Ha; the  historical use of Woolwich Common; former site of General Gordon’s home; former Royal Military Academy. Steve says there will be some good photo opportunities along the way.

Sounds like a pair of very interesting walks, Let’s hope the good weather holds out till Sunday.

The Woolwich Ha-ha on Ha-ha Road
The Woolwich Ha-ha on Ha-ha Road

Shooters Hill Archery Then and Now

Henry VIII Maying at Shooters Hill
Henry VIII Maying at Shooters Hill from W.T. Vincent’s Records of the Woolwich District

Although the widely-held belief that Shooters Hill derives its name from its medieval use as a site for archery practice is probably erroneous, it still seems appropriate that the Paralympics Archery competition was held nearby. There is a record of a medieval archery competition on Shooters Hill, in 1516 as part of Henry VIII’s May Day trip to Shooters Hill where he met Robin Hood:

The King and Queen [Henry VIII and Queen Katherine] accompanied with many lords and ladies rode to the high ground of Shooters Hill to take the open air; and as they passed by the way, they espied a company of tall yeoman, clothed all in green with green hoods and bows and arrows, to the number of two hundred. Then one of them, which called himself Robyn hood, came to the King, desiring him to see his men shoot, and the king was content. Then he whistled and all the two hundred archers shot and loosed at once, and then he whistled again, and they likewise shot again; their arrows whistled by craft of the head, so that the noise was strange and great, and much pleased the King and Queen and all the company. All of these archers were of the King’s guard and had thus appareled themselves to make solace to the King.

The archery at the paralympic stadium on Woolwich Common was, of course, very different. There are probably more than 200 archers at the paralympics,  they shot their arrows individually and in silence rather than all at once and the only strange and great noise was the audience applauding the archers who hit the gold area of the target and (especially loudly) any British competitors. I must admit that I visited the stadium as much out of curiosity about the strange structures transforming  Woolwich Commmon as out of any great interest in archery and shooting, but once there I found the competition completely compelling. It was very easy to get infected with the loud and enthusiastic audience atmosphere, whether clapping and stamping along to We Will Rock You or silently willing the British competitor’s arrow into gold.

Eric Bennet vs Oghuzan Polat in the Men's Individual Recurve
Eric Bennet vs Oghuzan Polat in the Men’s Individual Recurve –  Standing

It will be quite sad when the paralympics is over and London life returns to its usual routine, but I won’t be sad to see the stadium complex disappear from the Common – I don’t find it an attractive development – and I’m looking forward to the reinstatement of the Common back to its previous state or better. Apparently they will be replacing each tree that was cut down to make way for the stadium with one and a half new trees, which could be interesting. Some of the structures will be dismantled and taken to Glasgow, as one of the many volunteer Gamesmakers reports:

After the Games the 10/50m and 25m ranges and shot net will go to Glasgow for the 2014 Commonwealth Games; the large final hall is likely to remain in Greenwich. The dramatic temporary halls have been nick named ‘Teletubby Land’ and the site will be returned to Woolwich Common once the Games are finished.

But it’s not all gloom; a memorial of Woolwich Common’s role in the Olympics is planned by the Olympics Development Authority. They propose to place three brightly coloured teletubby window at the side of Ha-Ha Road. And no, it’s not April 1st, I checked.

Britain’s Sharon Vennard in Women’s Individual Recurve – Standing
Britain’s Sharon Vennard in Women’s Individual Recurve – Standing
Britain’s Sharon Vennard in Women’s Individual Recurve – Standing
Britain’s Sharon Vennard in Women’s Individual Recurve – Standing

Who was Major Robert John Little?

Major Robert John Little Memorial
Major Robert John Little Memorial

The restoration of parts of our urban environment prompted by the prospect of thousands of visitors is one of the positive side-effects of Greenwich being an Olympic borough. Major Robert John Little’s Memorial Obelisk was an obvious candidate for refurbishment; it is located right in front of the shooting/archery stadium on Woolwich Common, and on the recommended route from Woolwich Arsenal station to the Olympic events. Some might say that its location on the English Heritage “Buildings at Risk” list should have been reason enough to restore the memorial, but …. whatever, it has been restored.

The description of the restoration of the memorial says that the new brass plaques installed on each face of the obelisk are “inscribed with details of Robert John Little’s Life.”  However when I visited I found that apart from the front plaque they are all blank, so I thought I’d help out by finding out something about the life Major Robert John Little. Plus I was curious about who he was and why he had a memorial on the edge of Woolwich Common.

The English Heritage draft Survey of London on Woolwich gives some background on the creation of the obelisk, as part of an elaborate drinking fountain:

After the formation of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association in 1858, London was peppered with drinking fountains. This one, in the form of a grey-granite obelisk, was given by Anna Victoria Little, in memory of her late husband, Maj. Robert John Little, barrack-master at the Royal Marine Barracks and formerly a resident of Adelaide Place across the road. It was designed by a civil engineer, E. Gregory, and built by William Tongue, who, ironically, was responsible for enclosing part of Plumstead Common at this time. The obelisk survives, without its faucets, basins, twenty-one encircling cannon bollards or a trough for dogs, but restored with new bollards by Greenwich Council in 2011.

Detail of Major Little's memorial obelisk
Detail of Major Little’s memorial obelisk

However Major Little was much more than the Barrack Master at the Royal Marine Barracks. For a start he had a distinguished and heroic military career, summarised in Major H.G. Hart’s The New Army List 1849:

Capt Little served in the channel fleet and at the blockade of Ferrol and Corunna in 1803-4. Appointed to the Royal Marine Artillery on the formation of that corps in 1804, and was employed in various bomb vessels on the enemy’s coast co-operating with the land forces, or on detached service. In command of the mortars in the Vesuvius bomb at the attack of Boulogne. Defence of Cadiz in 1809; and subsequently at the blockade of Rochfort, where he commanded a storming party in a successful night attack on the coast, on which occasion he received the particular thanks of the Admiralty, and was rewarded by the Patriotic Fund:- at the commencement of this attack he was severely wounded by a musket ball shattering the wrist which rendered amputation of the right hand necessary.

The 1810 action which led to Major Little losing his right hand was part of the British blockade of the French fleet during the Napoleonic Wars. The story of the battle was recounted  in a number of historical books, for example The Naval History of Great Britain, from the Declaration of War by France in 1793, to the Accession of George IV by William James and  the Historical Record of the Royal Marine Forces. Vol II. by Paul Harris Nicholas:

On the night of the 27th of September, the boats of the 120-gun ship Caledonia and 74-gun ship Valiant, lying at anchor in   Basque roads, were detached under lieutenant A. P. Hamilton to destroy three brigs lying under the protection of a battery at Pointe du Ché ; and as the enemy had a strong detachment of troops in the adjoining village of Angoulin, a party of 130 marines under captains Thomas Sherman and Archibald McLachlan, lieutenants John Coulter and John Couche, and lieutenant Robert John Little of the marine artillery, were added to the division of seamen from the squadron.

At about 2 h. 30 m. a. m. on the 28th the marines were landed under the Pointe du Ché, and the alarm having been given by the brigs, an ineffectual fire was opened from the enemy’s guns. Lieutenant Little, with his detachment of artillery-men, pushed forward with the bayonet to the assault, supported by captain McLachlan’s division, and by a detachment under lieutenants Coulter and Couche; and having gallantly carried the battery, spiked the guns. Lieutenant Little, in leading his men, on entering the fort received the contents of the french sentry’s musket in his right hand as he was in the act of cutting him down, and the wrist was so much shattered as to render amputation necessary. Whilst the attack was making on the fort, captain Sherman, with his division, took post on the main road by the sea side, having his front to the village, and his right protected by a launch with an eighteen-pounder carronade. A party of the enemy succeeded, under cover of the night, in bringing a field-piece to bear with some effect, but the marines instantly charged, and captured the gun. Two of the brigs were brought off, and the third destroyed ; and the marines were now re-embarked, having sustained no greater loss than lieutenant Little and one private wounded. In the defence of the battery on Pointe du Ché, the enemy had 14 men killed.

Lieutenant Little’s battle injury didn’t end his military career, and the Navy Lists indicate that  he was promoted first to Captain  and again to Major and that he was awarded the Silver Naval Medal with one clasp. He became Barrack Master on 12th September 1829 on a salary of £183 per annum.

Crystal Palace from the northeast from Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851
Wikimedia Commons picture of Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition of 1851

In addition to his military career Major Little also seems to have been an inventor, exhibiting his improved watercock  at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in the Great Exhibition in 1851. As the Exhibition Catalogue says:

476. LITTLE, Major ROBERT J., 4 Queen’s Terrace, Woolwich Common — Inventor.

An improved watercock, with double plug, for connecting pipes without breaking joints, with sectional drawings of the same. Designed by the exhibitor, and manufactured by Frost, Noakes, and Vincent, 195 Brick Lane, Whitechapel.

Was Major Little a one-hit-wonder with his watercock, or did he have a successful career as an inventor? I’d love to find out.

Interestingly Major Little’s 1851 home in Queen’s Terrace was, according to the draft Survey of London, next to Adelaide Place where he also lived. By my reading of the 1866 OS map both  of these addresses faced onto Woolwich Common, roughly between where Jackson Street and Engineer Close are now,  just over the road from his memorial fountain.

The citation on Major Little’s obelisk says that he “devoted himself to honour of God and to the relief of human suffering.”  One way in which he would have achieved this was through his contribution to  the Executive and Finance Committee of the Royal Patriotic Fund. The Fund was instigated by Queen Victoria’s 1854 appeal for public donations to assist the widows and orphans of military personnel who were killed in the Crimean War. The appeal was a huge success, collecting over a million pounds in its first six months, and was able to found two schools in Wandsworth as well as providing grants to military widows and orphans. The Patriotic Fund continued in one form or another until just a couple of years ago when it was merged with the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) Forces Help charity.

I suspect that Major Little was also involved in other charitable work for the Royal Marines Artillery – for two reasons. Firstly the Charity Commission website mentions a charity named “Major Robert John Little“. It gives hardly any details, other than it has been amalgamated with the Royal Marines Welfare Fund. But secondly because, after his death in 1865, his widow, Mrs. Anna Victoria Little, donated the income from £100 to Royal Marine Artillery Benevolent Fund for the “distribution of bread and coals among the wives and families of corporals, gunners, and drummers in H.M. corps of Royal Marine Artillery resident at Portsmouth”. I wonder if Major Little was also associated with the Benevolent Fund. Another topic to keep an eye out for when visiting libraries!

Major Little died on 6th October 1861; The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical review for November 1861 simply reported:

Oct. 6.  At his residence, Bloomfield, Old Charlton, aged 74, Robert John Little, esq., late Major and Barrackmaster of the Royal Marines, Woolwich.”

He was buried in a family vault at St Lukes Church, Charlton. According to the Kent Archeological Society the inscription on the monument in 1908 was:

 164. LITTLE (26). Caroline, wife of Robert John LITTLE, of the Royal Marines, died January 12, 1832, aged 42 years. Richard Rosdew Little, late Captain of the Madras Horse Artillery and Commissary of Ordnance, there died August 23, 1861, aged 46 years. Robert John Little, died October 6, 1861, aged 74 years. He had served in the Corps of the Royal Marines nearly 55 years, joining the R.M.A. in early life and returning in 1837 as Major and Barrack Master of the Woolwich Division, which appointment he held for 28 years. Anna Victoria, relict of the above-named Major Little and daughter of Capt. Henry INMAN, R.N., and sometime Naval Commander at Madras, died March 5, 1866, aged 72 years.

The plan of the churchyard indicates that Major Little’s family grave was just to the left of the church entrance; was, unfortunately, because it’s no longer there, just some remains of brick foundations showing where the grave used to be. Interesting that there is a difference in dates between the monument inscription and the Naval Lists for when Major Little became Barrack Master.

St Lukes Charlton
St Lukes Charlton

So, still lots of unanswered questions about the Major, but hopefully  there is now enough to fill the remaining three brass plaques on his memorial.

May Be Out

Hawthorn blossom on Woolwich Common
Hawthorn blossom on Woolwich Common

Action Week, as David Hockney named it,  is here – the brief period of the year when hawthorn trees are covered with copious creamy-white blossom. Hockney describes the sudden appearance of the blossom as being “as if a thick white cream had been poured over everything” and saw it as a time to seize the opportunity to capture  the temporary transformation in art. His hawthorn pictures, whether made using water colour or iPad, were some of the highlights of his recent Royal Academy exhibition.

The display of hawthorn blossom on Woolwich Common is as awesome as the sheets of bluebells that carpet nearby woods, and I think should be similarly cherished and celebrated. Academy Road and its parallel path, where I wandered yesterday, would be a good place to start, but many of the other main paths on the common are also bordered by blossom, which may be a vestige of the use of  hawthorn as a hedging plant starting from the time of the  Anglo-Saxons for whom it was the Haegthorn, hedge-thorn.

The hawthorn is magical in more than its ephemeral adornment of the Common; it seems to exceed other trees in its supernatural, superstitious  and sacred associations. One of its many names is the May Tree; it now blossoms during the month of May, but this would have been closer to the start of May before the Julian to Gregorian calendar change lopped 11 days out of the calendar on 2nd September 1752. The blossom was used for decoration and garlands in May Day celebrations, symbolising new life and fertility.

Royal Artillery Barracks Woolwich Common
Royal Artillery Barracks Woolwich Common

Woolwich Common has an interesting history, outlined well in the Woolwich Common Conservation Area Character Appraisal, which is illustrated with some superb old maps. One of these, the Hasted Map from 1748, shows Woolwich and Charlton Commons extending unbroken from Shooters Hill to Charlton Place and Hornfair Park. However the military was using the common for testing artillery by 1720, which increased through the 18th century culminating in the construction of the barracks in 1775 and enclosure of the barrack fields behind a ha-ha in the late 1790s. This encroachment on common land was opposed by local residents seeing their rights  reduced. Military ownership of the common completed in 1803, as the Conservation Area Character Appraisal says:

In 1803, prompted by the needs of the emerging Napoleonic Wars, the Barracks was doubled in width creating an immense 330m frontage – on a scale seen elsewhere only in St Petersburg. The military consolidated control over the entire Common, by means of four special Acts of Parliament to enable their purchase of almost the entire Common for artillery and training purposes. Woolwich Common as it appears today is the result of the subsequent two centuries of military encroachment and development and various opposition movements and compromise agreements trying to reconcile the public’s desire for recreational access with military needs.

The English Heritage Draft Survey of London on Woolwich mentions that the Board of Ordnance compensated  Woolwich parishioners for the loss of their rights to extract gravel from the common, but there was no explicit compensation for loss of herbage and turbary rights, which means it could be argued that we are still allowed to graze our animals on the common and cut turf for fuel. I’m not sure about our estovers (collection of wood or gorse for fuel or building), or the right to build a garish spotted olympic venue.

So now is the time to cast a clout, and for a stroll on the common to admire the May blossom. Here are some more pictures to whet your appetite:

Hawthorn blossom on Woolwich Common with Olympic venue in background
Hawthorn blossom on Woolwich Common and Olympic venue
Hawthorn blossom on Woolwich Common with Olympic venue in background
Hawthorn blossom on Woolwich Common with Olympic venue in background
Hawthorn blossom on Woolwich Common
Hawthorn blossom on Woolwich Common