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Notes and news — December 1981

In this issue:

The Commercial Road stoneway

In the last Newsletter Derek Bayliss raised the question of the Commercial Road stoneway (GLIAS Newsletter October 1981). The following notes summarise its history.

Paved streets and, more particularly, cartways were known to the Ancients. There are examples in Pompeii and other Mediterranean cities. Quite often the cartways have been worn down into rutways and some authorities believe that rutways in Malta and elsewhere were deliberately cut. London streets were being paved in the Middle Ages and from 1766 granite from the Aberdeenshire quarries was being used (GLIAS Newsletter December 1979).

The Commercial Road was built under an Act of 1802 (42 Geo3 ch 101) to provide a suitable route from the West India Docks to London. The Road carried the heaviest traffic in London and excessive wear and tear on the (presumably Macadam) surface meant hefty repair bills for the Trustees. Powers were granted under a new Act of 1828 (9 Geo4 ch 112) to construct stoneways along both Commercial Road and East India Dock Road, but that along the latter could only be built if the Trustees obtained the written permission of the East India Company. Since the heaviest traffic was from the Docks up to Whitechapel the Trustees decided to build one stoneway along the south side of the road first and if it were successful then a second stoneway would be constructed. The first stoneway ran from the West India Dock to Berner Street (now Henriques Street), Whitechapel, a distance of 2 miles.

The road was 70 feet wide and, starting at the south side, there was a footpath 8 feet wide paved with York flags; a granite pavement (setts) 9 feet wide for stage coaches and similar vehicles; the stoneway 7 feet wide for heavy waggons and a Macadamised roadway 22 feet wide in the centre for light carriages and horses. The northern section was to be a repeat of the southern. Granite was supplied by contractors (Messrs. Freeman of Milbank) from Aberdeen and Herm Island with some from Mountsorrel (Leicestershire), Guernsey and Jersey. The stoneway itself was made of two rows of granite slabs, 18 inches wide and from 2½ to 10 feet long, with granite setts forming a horse path, 4 feet wide, between. The stones immediately adjacent to the long slabs were somewhat larger than the setts and were laid in the manner of quoins on a building. There was a row of such 'quoins' between the stoneway slabs and the Macadam at the centre of the road. Contemporary accounts suggest that the slabs were laid flush with the surface of the setts on either side but a photograph (c.1870) seems to show that the slabs were about ½ inch lower. This would afford a modicum of guidance to the vehicles and help to keep them on the stoneway, but was it deliberate or was it the result of settlement?

The engineer for the project was James Walker with G.P. Bidder as Superintendent of Works. In 1829 Walker reported to the Trustees on experiments carried out between West India Dock Gate and the first toll gate. It was these experiments that Francis Whishaw, author of 'The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland' (1842), was involved. Walker recommended that the optimum load for a single horse on the stoneway from West India Dock to Whitechapel up an average gradient of 1 in 274, was 6 tons.

The stoneway opened on Saturday 27 March 1830. The opening procession included a wagon loaded with Portland stone on top of which sat a number of dock labourers, a total weight of 10 tons. The waggon was fitted with Jones' patent, cylindrical wheels and the single horse completed the 2 mile journey in 34½ minutes.

In 1835 the Trustees reported to the proprietors on ways to counteract proposals to build a railway from London to Blackwall. They recommended that the second stoneway from Whitechapel to West India Docks should be built and that stoneways should be constructed along East India Dock Road and on to the Blackwall Pier. Such a scheme would, they said be cheaper and more profitable than a railway.

A reference of 1890 suggests that this second stoneway was built and that both were still in situ at that date. Another source says that the stoneway was taken up in 1871. If so this, was presumably in preparation for the horse trams which started running in 1872. (See John Marshall, A Biographical Dictionary of Railway Engineers, p29).

The Commercial Road stoneway was not unique. The Weedon stoneway, from Towcester to Weedon on Watling Street (the Holyhead Road) was built in 1837 to counter competition from the London and Birmingham Railway. Other European cities had them but they seem to have had few advantages over a well paved road (setts) and the heavy traffic tended to form ruts.

Other small lengths of stoneway were laid wherever heavy loads had to be started from rest, particularly on slopes. A number of examples are still to be found in London. Some examples are listed below?

Location Width of slabs Width of horse path (gauge) Approx. length
Between 'Sugar Quay' and Custom House, near the Tower of London (TQ 333 806); 17½ inches 4ft 9in 12 yds (curving)
Three Mills, between the Clock Mill and the House Mill (TQ 383 828) 23 inches 4ft 6in 50 yds (curving)
Three Mills, from House Mill, crossing the other stoneway at about 45° 23 inches 1ft 1in * 8 yds
Wilson Street LNWR warehouse. Two almost identical examples at each entrance,
running up slope from weighbridge to street (TQ 329 818)
27 inches 4ft 6in 12 yds

If any members know of other examples, either of stoneways such, as that along Commercial Road, or of surviving lengths such as above I would be glad to hear from them.

Main sources:

Mechanics Magazine 3 April 1830.
Report of the Trustees of the Commercial Road to the proprietors, affording a comparative view of the capabilities of the Commercial and East India Dock Roads with reference to projected railways to the East and West India Docks and Blackwall dated 4 November 1835.
Henry Law & D. Kinnear Clark — The Construction of Roads and Streets 1890, pp208-214 (Derek Bayliss kindly drew my attention to this ref.)
Bet Parker has found another description of the stoneway in Luke Herbert Engineers and Mechanics Encyclopaedia 1838-9.
I am grateful to the staff of Tower Hamlets Local History Library and the Guildhall Library for their help.
Tim Smith

The crisis in recording industrial monuments

This was a one-day meeting organised by the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) on 7 November, to review the means by which industrial monuments can be more effectively recorded for posterity. Speakers were some of the, leading practitioners in IA: Neil Cossons, John Hume, Ron Fitzgerald, Douglas Hague and Kenneth Major and representatives of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments in England (RCHM) and the Royal Commissions on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales and in Scotland. The problem is clear. Except for those few which are deliberately preserved, all industrial monuments appear ultimately to be threatened with destruction and the losses in the last 15 to 20 years have been quite alarming (e.g. at least two out of every three sites in Glasgow — one could tell a similar story for London). Recording by photography alone is too superficial for unique sites which are to be destroyed or altered, while original drawings survive only erratically, or can be misleading. Measured drawings and annotated sketches are essential, therefore, but there are few competent people available to address themselves to the task. Moreover there has been a lack of organisation and drive, in contrast to the rescue excavation movement in the archaeology of earlier periods or the fruitful co-operation between professionals and amateurs in the Historic American Engineering Record. Some ways forward ape suggested, e.g. assistance from Job Creation Schemes, but the central problem, the shortage of full-time professional workers, appeared to demand a redirection of resources at high level.

The RCHM in England has built up a network of volunteers for recording vernacular architecture and it was conceded that it should do the same in IA, provided appropriate standards are observed. From its HQ in Savile Row, the RCHM can offer photographic services, copying facilities for records and help with publication. The National Monuments Record, under its care, should be recognised as the national centre for all archaeological records, amateur and professional.

The RCHM in England, which since 1908 has been impeccably recording the more ancient historic monuments and latterly more recent ones, took on a formal commitment to Industrial Archaeology only two years ago. The CBA's Industrial Monuments Survey (England) was wound up in April 1981, although it is far from complete in the South East and Keith Falconer the survey officer, has been transferred to the RCHM's threatened buildings team, to work on detailed recording, as this is regarded now as of greater value than the cataloguing of sites which he had done hitherto. However, with this single investigator taken off other work and with doubts as to whether plant and equipment are within the RCHM's brief, England has a very long way to go.

The smaller Welsh and Scottish commissions are devoting far more resources to IA. The rescue recording of traditional whisky distilleries and their equipment and the in-depth archaeological and documentary studies of the Swansea Canal and of South Wales ironworks were impressive illustrations of what a few full-time workers can achieve. This was a stimulating meeting and it is a pity that most people had less than a week's notice of its taking place — and, indeed, that it did not take place some years ago. The CBA Industrial Archaeology Research Committee has produced a handsome report, "The Recording of Industrial Sites: A Review", which includes examples of standard format survey sheets arid an instructive 'selection of sketches and measured drawings; price £2.75 post free. It is hoped to have copies on the bookstall at the next GLIAS lecture. Malcolm Tucker

Mystery hole

GLIAS gets some strange offers. One I couldn't resist was a recent opportunity to investigate a concrete "cell" which had been discovered under wood covering boards some 18" below the otherwise normal back garden of a house at The Keep, Blackheath, SE3 during preparations for lawn laying. So far several possible former uses have been suggested, but none has proved satisfactory.

The garden was until c.1900 part of grounds of a large mansion, then covered by a pig farm and then, c.1945-52, by a caravan park. Present houses were erected in the mid 1950s.

The "cell" tapered slightly toward the solid base which appeared to be watertight — there were several inches of muddy water at the bottom. There was no sign of lighting, nor of steps, so uses as an air raid shelter or an ice house can be discounted. Tide marks on the walls about 15" below the top of the "cell", as well as its shape, suggest that it might have been used for storage of liquids, but there was no sign of pipes leading in or of a plug. The solid base cuts out ideas of a conventional (i.e. with seepage of liquids) cess pit.

The roof is 4" thick, but no measurement of any other thicknesses was possible. Clear markings of horizontal shuttering planks remained from the time of construction. There was no way of telling if reinforcing was used.

The two questions are — what was it built for and when? Please send ideas to me at 36 Pearman Street, SE1 7RB. David Thomas (>>>)

Industrial Archaeology is not just facts and figues — An idle polemic on recording

Perhaps one of the most important contributions made by us as industrial archaeologists is that we do not just record hard facts and figures — we express subjective reactions to the items we record. Dimensions and figures may sometimes survive anyway, without our intervention — plans, accounts and legal documents may be found in archive collections but the subjective feel of say a factory about to close after a century of use certainly will not. This is an important reason why the occasional "purple passage" in our work should be allowed. Think how we value such insights into feeling in the diaries and travel books of 18th and early 19th gentlemen. Gems like this are becoming scarcer. Little unconsidered writing of P of this kind takes place nowadays and if it does exist is unlikely to find its way in to print. We no longer have an educated and leisured upper class like, that which flourished at the end of the last century. Private letter writing has fallen into abeyance — much contemporary communication is by telephone etc. and goes unrecorded. A good deal of the material that delights the present day historian of technology has no modern counterpart. It is said that Beethoven would not have written half his letters if he had had a telephone! Amid the deluge of information we shall pass on to our descendants — assuming we have some — might not the unguarded observations of the industrial archaeologist be of value in the way that purple passages in accounts of industrial tours 140-200 years ago are of value to us?

Almost all of us in industrial archaeology are motivated at least in part by aesthetic and nostalgic considerations — yet how often when an editor has to shorten an article it is the "purple passages" that are omitted leaving a body of hard fact that is often a duplication of something already published and available, at least to the ardent bookworm. Sight, smell, sound — perhaps touch and a general feeling of occasion characterise our visits to working firms. The overall impression of an old works consists of a synthesis of these and more and is not recreated by just a tape recording plus slides (tape recordings and slides are rather impermanent anyway) or even by cine film. The subjective reaction of a sensitive observer present in a situation which is regarded as being of some significance will often be worth reading and especially so if the observer's reaction is well expressed. Prose (poetry for that matter) is digital and can be stored without loss — to be borne in mind when considering the future prose will be easily handled by the word processors, storage, retrieval and transmission systems to come — at least so we hope. Have Newsletter readers anything to add on this matter? Bob Carr

Full stop for lines

Two railway lines in London were closed in October. The branch to Poplar Bock, which for several years had a meagre traffic for transfer to lighters for transhipment in turn to ocean-going ships owed its survival to the continued railway ownership of the Dock. In Southwark, the large Bricklayers Arms Parcels Depot has closed and with it the extremity of the 1¾-mile line to the one time terminus built for the London & Croydon and South Eastern Railways in 1844. A few sidings, into the former steam locomotive sheds' lifting, shop continue to be used maintenance work on railway cranes. David Thomas



Following the request for the news of sites in the last Newsletter we have been told of two sites. Mr. B. Miller has given details of an interesting purpose-built depot for the carriers, Carter Paterson & Co. at 25 Hopewell Street, SE5 and Mr. D. Warren has mentioned a very nice little six-horse stables behind 2 Arlingford Road, SW2. More details on these and others in the next Newsletter.

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© GLIAS, 1981